Who is the next Cameron Payne, a player who elevates his game and helps make a team an NBA title contender?
After being dissed in Chicago, he was an important part of the Phoenix Suns’ rotation during their playoff run
In the NBA, one team’s castoff can become another team’s critical piece in building a championship-caliber team: witness Cameron Payne of the Phoenix Suns.
During this year’s playoffs, Payne, the 14th pick of the 2015 NBA draft, was an integral rotation player for the Suns. In February 2017, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded him to the Chicago Bulls, and his new team quickly soured on him. “We knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t play at [an NBA] level,” Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
This offseason, the Golden State Warriors traded Eric Paschall, the 41st pick in the 2019 draft, to the Utah Jazz for a protected 2026 second-round pick. Paschall, who made the 2019-20 NBA All-Rookie first team, had shown flashes of being a rotation player, but his iso-heavy style clashed with the Warriors’ ball-and-player movement offensive system that pushes players to shoot, dribble or pass within a half-second of receiving the ball. The Jazz saw a player poorly suited for the Warriors’ system, believing he could achieve more for them than with Golden State.
Who might be a similar “distressed asset,” a player who might be able to make it with another team? I talked with Steve Jones Jr., a former NBA video coordinator and assistant coach who co-hosts The Dunker Spot podcast with Nekias Duncan, and Keandre, who hosts the popular NBA prospect YouTube channel Hoop Intellect, to figure out who that might be.
Kevin Knox II
I first considered Kevin Knox II, the first player drafted by the New York Knicks in the 2018 NBA draft, ninth overall. Knox, a 6-foot-9 wing from Kentucky, entered the league showing promise after a successful summer league debut.
“Kevin Knox was one of the highest recruits in the country,” Keandre said, “and was the prototypical wing who’s got all the tools. Solid athlete who could score from a bunch of different levels at the high school prep level.”
But through his first three seasons, Knox has struggled to get consistent playing time. Although he’s got good size for a wing, he doesn’t have an athletic advantage in most NBA matchups. He’s not particularly strong and he’s slower than most. He can’t create separation on offense, and he struggles to defend.
“I think the issue is there’s not one thing he brings to the table every single time that you can depend on,” Jones said. “[That’s why] he ends up out of the rotation or with inconsistent minutes or an inconsistent role.
“I think that’s what happened with the Knicks where I thought he was a guy they needed, but he didn’t really fit in defensively with what they needed and, offensively, he didn’t necessarily hit enough shots to make up for that.”
Payne displays on-ball quickness, which means defenders tend to give him space, fearing he can blow by them. With that space, Payne can hit the 3 — he shot 44% last season from beyond the arc. That’s why he can get minutes. He has an athletic advantage that he can leverage to create advantages for his team. Paschall has shown similar promise. Although a bit shorter than most NBA forwards at 6-foot-6, he has incredible strength and good quickness for his size that he can leverage to get to the cup or get to the midrange.
A team that trades for Knox would want him to become a knockdown 3-point shooter, and, as Keandre told me, “defense is definitely going to have to be his main focus going forward. I think if he can get that to just average level, he’s a guy who teams have to be a little bit more intrigued by.”
With all the holes in Knox’s game, a team interested in him should probably wait until next offseason to acquire him when he’ll most likely be a free agent.
My attention turned next to Jarrett Culver, the sixth pick of the 2019 NBA draft. The 6-foot-6 wing who hasn’t hit shots has struggled in his two years with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Keandre says that “Culver is kind of similar to Kevin Knox in the way that he’s a wing who has solid tools. He showed quite a bit in college and was able to build from being a three-star or two-star recruit, go to Texas Tech his freshman year, and learn a lot, and see a guy like Zhaire Smith go to league and then take over that next year and become a star on a national championship runner-up team.”
Jones said, “He’s got the size. He’s got the length. He’s got the talent.”
Yet, Culver hasn’t found a role that suits him. More to the point, Culver is a man without a position. When he came into the league, the Timberwolves put the ball in his hands and asked him to function as a quasi-point guard.
“I didn’t understand that,” Keandre said. “I felt like he was a big wing coming into the draft and a lot of people wanted to put him into a position where he could play the [point guard] or at least have more ballhandling responsibilities, because he did show some of that at Texas Tech. I think he averaged like four assists a game. But that just really wasn’t something I felt like was going to be a part of his game at the next level.”
Why a team would want Culver to have some ballhandling responsibilities is understandable, but playing a young player at a position he can’t have any success at risks ruining his confidence before he can even feel good about himself.
Because the Timberwolves haven’t figured out where to play him, it has left him unable to get consistent playing time. During his rookie year, he received a solid 24 minutes a game. Last season, those minutes dwindled to 15 per game. With guards Josh Okogie and Malik Beasley ahead of him on the depth chart because of good defensive and offensive contributions, Culver has no real chance to showcase what he could be in the league.
“I,” Jones said, “would love to see him potentially get to a team that will give him the minutes that he needs to continue to develop because I don’t know how much it helps him to play 15-20 minutes a game in the rotation and then be out of the rotation, that kind of thing.”
However, Culver seems too far away to give any team confidence that he can be productive should they trade for him. He has some promise, but given his lack of performance, I don’t think a team should try and rescue him from Minnesota unless the Timberwolves are giving him away.
Marvin Bagley III
After excluding recent draftees such as Dennis Smith Jr., Justin Jackson and Jerome Robinson, whose prospects I’m less sanguine about, I last considered Marvin Bagley III, the 6-foot-11 big man the Sacramento Kings drafted in 2018 with the second pick, passing on Luka Doncic and Trae Young.
“Marvin Bagley was always one of those top recruits,” Keandre said. “[A power forward who] has all the tools. Post skills. He had a really good year at Duke, and I felt like he did enough to be warranted as a consensus top-5 pick, although I felt like Sacramento should have been in a different direction.
“He hasn’t performed to expectations, but he’s also never really had consistent time out there on the court. If he gets to a position where he gets the health going in a positive direction so we can at least get 60 games off him, I think he’s got a chance to shine as long as people don’t put like unrealistic expectations on him. The talent is still there and in certain moments in the league, so far, he’s looked good.”
Bagley has shown an ability to stuff the box score, putting up 21 points and 10.8 rebounds per 36 minutes. The advanced analytics, however, peg him as an average offensive player and a bad defender who matches the eye test, especially on defense, where he regularly gets cooked. Yet, he’s shown enough to give another team confidence that he can find his lost promise and become a productive player. Stardom might prove too elusive for the former Duke star, although arriving at a place where he can contribute to winning basketball seems within his grasp.
“I think Marvin Bagley is a guy,” Jones said, “who should be a prime candidate because he showed offensively what he can do. It’s just the consistency aspect for him. I think the defensive problems or the issues with that aspect has probably downgraded him, but I think in a different situation, a different spot, he may be able to shine.”
Much like Culver, Bagley’s career will turn on whether he finds the right position to play. Is he a 4 or a 5? If he’s a 4, then playing time will come down to whether he raises his 31.4% career 3-point percentage. The 4 position needs to be guarded at the 3-point line, especially if he’s not a defensive stopper. If he’s a 5, he will need to become a decent defensive anchor who can use his quickness to beat opposing centers on offense. Right now, he can’t shoot well enough to be a 4 and he can’t defend well enough to be a 5. His gifts are useless if his deficiencies undermine the coach’s ability to put a five-man unit on the court that can outscore opponents.
Jones says Bagley “just needs a fresh start to just reset his game. Reset his career. And then move forward. I think everyone knows he’s got the talent, it’s just can he show it on a consistent basis and contribute to winning.”
Rumblings about the 22-year-old wanting out have routinely bubbled to the surface. He recently took his affiliation with the Kings off his Twitter bio and his father tried in January to get Sacramento to trade his son.
I think a team, perhaps a rebuilding team like the Thunder, should take a chance on Bagley. He makes $11.3 million next year, but he hasn’t displayed an ability to put up production warranting that salary, so he could be gettable on the cheap. He matches the profile of a Cameron Payne or Eric Paschall who has physical attributes that can be leveraged by a discerning franchise to get a winning player.