Toiling in relative obscurity just two years ago averaging 14.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Salt Lake Community College (UT), Gary Payton II burst onto the NBA radar with an impressive junior season that saw him earn Defensive Player of the Year and All-Conference First Team recognition in the Pac-12, posting a surprisingly similar stat-line despite the significant jump in competition. Returning to Corvalis for his senior season, the Seattle native figured to establish himself among the top point guard prospects in the senior class in his second season under Wayne Tinkle. Ranking among the top-10 players in the Pac-12 in points, rebounds, assists, and steals per-game, the 23 year old guard largely lived up to expectations, guiding the Beavers to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1990, repeating as the conference Defensive Player of the Year, and solidifying himself as a potential late first round pick.
A somewhat unique guard prospect, Payton's intrigue at the NBA level starts his impressive physical tools. Playing even bigger than his measurements of 6'2.5 in shoes with a 6'6.5 wingspan and a 184-pound frame at the 2015 Nike Skills Academy, the Westwing Prep (AZ) product has terrific size and length for a lead guard. Payton also possesses very good quickness and explosive leaping ability, being responsible for a number of highlight reel dunks during his two seasons in Division I. He has everything you look for in a point guard prospect from a physical standpoint.
There is some real substance to how Payton applies his physical tools on the floor, particularly on the boards and the defensive end. Pulling down an absolutely spectacular 9.3 rebounds per-40 minutes as a senior, Payton ranks among the top rebounding point guards of all-time at the high major level on paper, especially on the offensive end. He does an impressive job pursuing caroms on both ends, frequently pulling down contested rebounds sneaking up on players with better position thanks to how quickly he elevates to corral the ball and his instincts tracking the ball and boxing out bigger players when the situation calls for it.
Defensively, Payton was very disruptive at times this season, ranking 2nd in steals per-40 minutes pace adjusted among players in our top-100, behind only Kris Dunn. Active with his hands, aggressive in the passing lanes when Oregon State went zone, and capable of applying great pressure defending on the ball, Payton has some impressive moments on this end, especially when he's being aggressive.
With that being said, the Westwind Prep (AZ) product still has room to grow as a defender, as he struggled with some occasional lapses in effort and doesn't always fight through screens effectively. He gives up more dribble penetration that one would hope defending on the ball as he appears more committed on this end some times more than others. Payton's ability to make strides in those areas and reach his lofty potential defensively are more important than they are for many point guards looking to make the jump to the NBA, as his offensive game is less refined than many of his peers.
Playing on the ball more frequently than he did a year ago, Payton was tasked as the primary ball handler for a far different Beavers team as a senior, as Wayne Tinkle welcomed a deep, talented freshman class into the fold. Playing at a much quicker pace and taking a massive step forward after struggling to score for stretches last season, Oregon State was one of the most improved offensive teams in the country, and some of the credit for that goes to Payton. Operating far more frequently in the pick and roll and assuming bigger responsibilities as a scorer and passer, the senior adjusted nicely to the changes Tinkle implemented this season, posting an improved 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio with similar scoring efficiency, even if his strengths and weaknesses remain largely unchanged.
At this point, Payton does his best work in transition, using his speed to spark the break and his explosiveness to score in the open floor. An effortless leaper, Payton is a threat to finish spectacularly above the rim, and his aggressiveness looking for steals often leads to easy opportunities on the other end.
In the half court, the senior was solid on some fronts, but not others this season. With 50% of his shots coming from finishing opportunities and floaters according to the Synergy Sports Technology, Payton is very aggressive looking to get into the paint to score. He also does a nice job working without the ball crashing the glass, setting up cuts, and converting lobs. Shooting an impressive 65% in finishing situations, but just 27% on floaters, Payton struggles to convert from the midrange, but finishes fairly effectively when he gets all the way to the rim, which he did at a nice rate thanks to his strong first step. He forces the issue at times and doesn't always finish effectively over length, but his combination of speed an leaping ability translates nicely against a set defense.
As a passer, Payton has good vision and does a better job making the simple play than he did a year ago, dishing out 5.9 assists per-40 minutes pace adjusted to rank right around average among point guard prospects in our top-100. He's not an overly prolific distributor, however, as his feel for running a team serving as a full-time playmaker leaves a bit to be desired at times. He'll make some impressive plays in drive and kick situations, but kills his dribble too soon just too frequently, and doesn't have a great grasp of when to take his foot off the gas attacking off the bounce. He isn't very turnover prone, but seems capable of more as a shot creator given his athletic prowess. An improved, but still less than dynamic ball handler, Payton was able to make plays on speed alone at the college level, and though his ability to get downhill quickly figures to be a key part of his game at the next level, he would benefit from becoming more shifty with the ball in his hands, improving his right hand, and growing into a more reliable shooter to reach his potential as a slasher.
The biggest concern about Payton at this stage is his lack of jump shooting ability and at times questionable shot selection. Making 31% of his jump shots in the half court, Payton is a suspect set shooter and even more streaky off the dribble. He's also prone to settling for shots early in the shot clock, a bit concerning given his ineffectiveness from the outside. His mechanics don't look awful at times, but the consistency of his release and its fluidity aren't ideal. To his credit, he was more aggressive attacking the basket this season than last, forcing drives more frequently than pull-ups. The way defenders sagged off of his at times makes his success getting inside as regularly as he did that much more impressive. Despite that, his ability to keep defenders honest with the threat of his perimeter shot is a significant point of interest moving forward as he makes the jump to the next level.
A year older than many of his peers in the senior class, Payton is a somewhat unique prospect considering his sudden rise to prominence from the junior college level and NBA pedigree. Lacking a degree of high level experience, Payton's combination of athleticism, defensive potential, and solid playmaking ability make him a fairly intriguing prospect nonetheless. More raw than many players his age, Payton's lack of great polish as a shooter and ball handler are concerns, but also areas that he could conceivably make strides in down the road. A potential late first round pick with a strong pre-draft process, Payton's draft range seems fairly large at this point making him a player to keep tabs on in the coming months.
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