Cameron Payne signed a
three-year, $19 million deal with the Phoenix Suns last month. The
27-year-old point guard confirmed that he could have received more
money from a different team, but he never seriously considered
The Suns gave him an opportunity
when it seemed like his days as a professional basketball player
were numbered, so he wanted to remain loyal to them.
“It got me back into the NBA. I
feel like I gotta pay the favor back, even though I don’t have to,”
Payne told Arizona Sports 98.7. “Man, it changed my life. And it’s only right
for me to just ride it out with Phoenix as well. Monty [Williams],
a great coach, he been coaching me up this last year and in the
Bubble. I just love it, I love it out there. I just had to stay,
“I want to be a Valley
The New York Knicks were among
the teams to express interest in Payne, who reportedly could’ve earned around $10-12 million annually
had he decided to test the market.
Payne was one of the feel-good
stories of the 2021 NBA Finals, emerging as a significant
contributor for Phoenix on the biggest stage just one year after
being out of the NBA.
Looking back at Payne’s career,
he’s had a unique journey with plenty of ups and downs.
After two outstanding seasons at
Murray State – including a sophomore year in which he averaged 20.2
points, 6.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 2.4 threes and 1.9 steals –
Payne was the No. 14 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft by the Oklahoma
City Thunder. Despite being a lottery pick, he had a limited role
in OKC since he was behind Russell Westbrook on the depth chart and
the team was in win-now mode, advancing to the Western Conference
Finals during his rookie year.
After two seasons, the Thunder
dealt Payne to the Chicago Bulls in a five-player trade (which
brought Taj Gibson, Doug McDermott and a 2018 second-round pick to
the Thunder). Payne split time between the Bulls and their G League
affiliate for two years, and he struggled.
In 2017, a Bulls source famously
Chicago Sun-Times: “We
knew the second practice [after he was acquired] that he couldn’t
play at [the NBA] level. The only reason it took two practices was
because we thought maybe it was nerves in the first one. Any coach
who says differently is lying."
Payne was still on Chicago’s
roster when a team source made those comments, and he would stick
around for another year-and-a-half after that article was
published. Bulls fans
were heavily critical of Payne too, nicknaming him the "Tank
"Because fans think he might be
the worst player in the league. Fans couldn’t wait till Payne made
his return [from injury], because then the team would lose more
games because of him,” wrote Daniel Greenberg of the blog Pippen Ain’t
In January of 2019, the Bulls
waived Payne. He ended up inking a pair of 10-day contracts with
the Cleveland Cavaliers. He went from earning $3,263,294 from his rookie-scale contract to making just
$177,062 from the Cavaliers’ 10-day deal. After his second 10-day
contract expired, Cleveland decided not to sign him for the
remainder of the season. The Toronto Raptors briefly signed Payne,
but then they waived him 11 days later after just one preseason
When the 2019-20 NBA season
started, Payne remained unsigned.
At this point, Payne signed with
the Shanxi Loongs of the Chinese Basketball Association. However,
after two months with the team, he had played in just two games
(averaging 22.5 points, 7.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 steals).
And he only appeared in those two games because one of his American
teammates, Jamaal Franklin, got hurt. Payne was riding the bench
with Shanxi due to CBA rules that restrict American players. The
Loongs ultimately replaced Payne with Franklin once he got healthy,
ending his stint in China.
This was rock bottom for Payne.
Even in China, he was viewed as a reserve and ultimately got cut.
He was only 25 years old, but he started to wonder if his
professional-basketball career was nearing an end.
"I just always thought, like,
'Is it time? Is it over for me? Is basketball over for me?
Already?'” Payne admitted. “And then I'm like, 'Nah, I work too hard. I
Payne was out of the NBA – out
of pro basketball entirely – just four years removed from being a
lottery pick. He knew that the average NBA career lasts roughly
four seasons, and it’s something that he thought about
“The average [career] span in
the NBA is three-to-four years,” Payne said. “[I’d ask myself],
‘Are you gonna be in and out?’"
Most players (especially lottery
picks) can't imagine their career fizzling out after a few seasons.
Keep in mind, every NBA player has already achieved the impossible
by making it to the league. At some point, they were surely told
that making it to the NBA was unrealistic. After all, only 0.03% of
high-school-senior players go on to play at this level. You don’t
earn one of the 450 NBA roster spots without having enormous
confidence and self-assuredness. Of course most players expect to stick in the NBA
long-term and have a legendary career; after all, aiming for the
stars and refusing to be "realistic" is what got them to the league
in the first place. In their mind, failure isn't an
Until... it is. Once a player
starts struggling and their
career isn’t going as planned, it can be devastating. When a
Chinese Basketball Association team cuts you and nobody shows
interest in signing you, it’s not just humbling – it’s
After Shanxi replaced him, Payne
returned home to Memphis to train and weigh his
“It kind of hurt to go back
home, and everybody asks you, ‘What you doing? Who you playing with
next year?’ It would be questions like that, that kind of
[frustrated me],” Payne recalled. “You're like, ‘Man, I ain't
really trying to answer that question...’ Obviously, I'm
trying to make a team. People asking, ‘What you doing?
Who you going to play with next year?’ is always in the back of my
head when I'm working out because I never want to be back
at the bottom, going to China and stuff like that.”
Payne ended up joining the Texas
Legends of the NBA G League in hopes of getting called up by an NBA
squad. He had thrived against G League competition before,
averaging 20.2 points, 5.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 2.4 threes and
1.8 steals in 10 games as an affiliate player with the Oklahoma
City Blue and Windy City Bulls.
This time, he
In 15 games with the Legends,
Payne averaged 23.2 points, 7.3 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 2.8 threes,
2.1 steals and 0.8 blocks on 48.6 / 36.8 / 77.8 shooting splits. In
March 2020, he was named the NBA G League Player of the Week after
putting up 23.3 points, 10.3 assists, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals and
1.3 blocks to lead Texas to a 3-0 record.
During the NBA’s COVID-19
stoppage, Payne finally got the call he’d been praying for: Phoenix
wanted to sign him and bring him to the Bubble in Orlando. Suns
head coach Monty Williams was on the Thunder’s coaching staff when
Payne was a rookie, and he had worked closely with the young point
During Phoenix's 8-0 run in the
Bubble, Payne averaged 10.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.9
threes and 1.0 steal while shooting an uber-efficient 46.2% from
He hasn’t looked back
In the first round of the 2021
NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers, Payne stepped up in a
major way after Chris Paul hurt his shoulder. He ran the team
smoothly in Paul's absence, averaging 12.5 points, 3.3 assists, 3.0
rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks (while shooting 42.3% from
three and 100% from the free-throw line).
With Paul sidelined due to
COVID-19 in the Western Conference Finals, Payne had the best game
of his career: 29 points, 9 assists, 2 threes, 2 steals, 2 blocks
and 0 turnovers. He picked a great time to go off, as Phoenix won
104-103 and took a 2-0 lead in the series.
He helped the Suns advance to
the NBA Finals, where they came within two wins of hoisting the
Larry O’Brien trophy against the Milwaukee Bucks. During the
Finals, Payne was asked about his journey and his support system
that helped him along the way. He shouted out his mother,
“She's seen what I've been
through; she's seen everything I've done,” Payne said of his
mother. “She's just as excited and happy and feels so much for me
because she knows what I've been through. She knows it ain't been
an easy road. She's seen me cry on a hospital bed, thinking it was
over... It's unbelievable. It's crazy. It’s almost like a
dream-come-true type of thing.”
One year ago, if someone told
Payne that he’d play a key role in the 2021 NBA Finals, would he
“Absolutely not! To be honest,
when I first signed, I just wanted to be able to get some time in
the Bubble and try to make someone's roster this season,” Payne
admitted. “I didn't think all this was going to come about, us
making it to the Finals. I kind of felt like we were going to be
able to make the playoffs, but here? No, not even a little bit.
It's a crazy roller-coaster, this thing here.
“Life's crazy. I just put the
work in, put the time in, prayed on it, everything, and I'm just
going to keep on doing the same thing.”
While the Suns came up short in
the Finals, they’re bringing back all of their key pieces and
adding some reinforcements (such as JaVale McGee and Landry
Shamet). Also, aside from Paul, many of their best players are
age-25 or younger – including Devin Booker (24), Deandre Ayton
(23), Mikal Bridges (24) and Cam Johnson (25). That means they
should continue to improve, especially after playing the postseason
for the first time.
Not long ago, Payne was
desperate for any team to give him a shot. Fortunately for him, the
only team that expressed interest just happened to put him in the
perfect situation: playing key minutes on an NBA-Finals team, while
learning from an all-time great point guard and an outstanding head
coach whom he adores with a system that is a terrific fit for his
Payne knows what it’s like to be
ostracized by the NBA, wondering whether he’ll have to look for
non-basketball work. Over the last year, he played like someone who
never wants to be in that position again, and it paid off with the
biggest contract of his career and job security that he’ll never
take for granted.