Why Cameron Payne believes his time watching Russell Westbrook will make him better

Cameron Payne played just 77 games with the Thunder. (AP)
Cameron Payne played just 77 games with the Thunder. (AP)

Standing in a quiet corner of his new locker room, Cameron Payne admitted he’s still finding his footing and navigating his way out of Russell Westbrook’s shadow. As a former lottery pick, Payne’s backup role to one of the NBA’s best players came with fluctuating minutes and shots, and spot duty off the bench. So once Payne had read the details of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s trade with the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline, he mentioned one word to those close to him: opportunity.

“It’s going to take time, but I want to be the guy for the Bulls’ future,” Payne recently told The Vertical. “I felt like OKC wanted something else, and I’m happy that Chicago felt the need to come trade for me. With what they gave up to get me, it meant a lot. The role that they want me to play … it’s tough. We’re in the middle of the season, and I got to learn a lot in such a short time period.

“I’m trying to pick up as much as I can. It’s a different style of game play, a totally different group of guys. It took me a year to get to know those guys in OKC, and now I have a month and a half.”

The Bulls made a tremendous investment in Payne, shipping Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson and a 2018 second-round pick to Oklahoma in a deal that included Joffrey Lauvergne and Anthony Morrow going to Chicago. Chicago gave up significant value, considering that the franchise needed to trade two first-round picks and one second-round pick to draft McDermott in 2014, and Gibson is regarded as a starting-caliber power forward. The two first-round selections that Chicago dealt for McDermott turned into guard Gary Harris and center Jusuf Nurkic, who are both playing well as starters for Denver and Portland, respectively.

Payne and Russell Westbrook perform their pregame dance ritual earlier this season. (AP)
Payne and Russell Westbrook perform their pregame dance ritual earlier this season. (AP)

When Chicago gave up McDermott, the No. 11 selection in the draft, and its longest-tenured player in Gibson, rival executives believed it was a clear sign that the Bulls’ envisioned Payne as its starting point guard of the future. Now, they must work toward his growth. Ever since the Derrick Rose trade, the Bulls have searched for a stable replacement and have given opportunities to Rajon Rondo, Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams.

For his part, Payne says he has taken lessons from Oklahoma City’s culture and learned from playing alongside Westbrook. He had bonded with Westbrook, even filmed a national commercial days before his trade to Chicago, and now finds himself in a larger market with the pressure to perform.

“When I was in OKC, I knew I would be playing behind Russell as long as we were there,” Payne told The Vertical. “I was with a veteran guy who’s in his prime, playing unbelievable, and I get to watch and see it right through my eyes. That was a learning experience where I just wanted to learn from him. I take everything he taught me, everything I learned, and I get to use it now.

“Seeing the floor, knowing time and score and when to get off a shot and when you can’t. Knowing that coming late in the game, how every possession is important. I need to get better at all of that. Russ comes in every day in practice and approaches it as a game. I take that as a great example to abide by.”

Payne has two seasons remaining on his contract, which persuaded Chicago to move two players who are closing in on new deals. The Bulls have major roster decisions looming in the offseason, with possible Jimmy Butler trade talks, Dwyane Wade’s player option, Rondo’s partially guaranteed deal and the restricted free agencies of Nikola Mirotic, Cristiano Felicio and Lauvergne. Chicago had several serious discussions to move Mirotic before the deadline, wanting a first-round pick in return, league sources told The Vertical, but now could face both Mirotic and Felicio receiving offer sheets in July.

Bulls management said it targeted Payne, who went 14th overall in 2015, in the draft, raving about his shot creation and ability to change pace. “We liked the opportunity to bring in Cam,” general manager Gar Forman told reporters after the trade.

Payne still must prove himself as a contributor and legitimate rotation player, and put his offseason foot surgery behind him with production on the floor. The Bulls’ price to obtain Payne on deadline day was steep, and now comes their development process and hopeful succession plan.

“I feel it’s a blessing in disguise, leaving and coming to Chicago,” Payne told The Vertical. “I’m super excited to get an opportunity to play. I want to attack this, and get better and do my best when I get out on the court.”

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