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Cameron Payne is working his way back in the G League

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my report from the Windy City Bulls game

NBA: Chicago Bulls-Media Day Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Payne probably doesn’t care if you don’t think he is any good. He probably doesn’t care if you think the Oklahoma City Thunder fleeced the Bulls in the trade that sent him to Chicago. But I wouldn’t know, because he declined an interview request (which was totally within his rights by the way, I just found it amusing) after the Windy City Bulls 108-105 victory over the Canton Charge on Saturday night in Hoffman Estates.

Payne played very well for the Bulls G-League affiliate. The 23-year-old scored 21 points in 23 minutes on 8-for-15 from the field and grabbed six rebounds and had four assists to just one turnover. His performance was somewhat forgettable, until a late-game surge that saw him score seven points in the last four minutes of the game and swat a shot on the Canton Charge’s last possession that sealed the win for his team.

While Payne wouldn’t address his play, Windy City Bulls coach Charlie Henry did:

“I thought he played well, especially in that last stretch, I thought he did a really good job of closing the game for us. He came in (at the 7:40 mark in the fourth quarter) and we were down either four or six (points) and on both ends he really carried us down the stretch. So I was very encouraged by his performance tonight.”

Looking to salvage his NBA career, Payne had a forgettable NBA Summer League, then broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot and went under the knife in early September. Payne had broke the same foot during the 2015-2016 season while playing for the Thunder.

Finally, he is back to playing basketball after that five month injury hiatus. Before Saturday night, he averaged 21 points per game on 37.8 percent from the field (33.3 percent from behind the 3-point line), and 4.0 assists in two G League contests,

Payne ran a lot of pick-and-rolls with mixed results on Saturday night. He was a dynamic pick-and-roll player in college, was in the 82nd percentile in points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler during his rookie season in the NBA, but was only in the 18th percentile in points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler last season.

There was some good....

Here, Payne notices Grant Jerrett (No. 11) kind of floating between WCB big man Daniel Ochefu (No. 21)and Mychal Mulder on the perimeter and also notices another Charge player caught between showing his hands to help on Payne in the pick-and-roll and defending the paint and then losing Ochefu behind him opening up the pass.

“He has that feel to make plays in the pick-and-roll,” Henry said. “He has the lefty dynamic going, he’s really good when he gets downhill to his left hand. Going right you know has been an emphasis for him with the Chicago Bulls and he’s improved on that as well. When he gets downhill he really sees the second side, reads the tag guy and makes an appropriate pass. When he doesn’t get downhill to score he’s (passing to a teammate) on the second side so that’s encouraging to see.”

But there was also some not so good....

If you pause the video at the exact moment when he gets the ball knocked away, notice that he has loosened his dribble considerably and the ball comes all the way up to his shoulder allowing the defender to make a play on the ball. This should have been an easy layup. Ironically, he’s dribbling left on the pick-and-roll play he messed up and right on the play that he gets the pretty assist.

Instead of elite first-step quickness, Payne relies on change of speed dribble moves to fool defenders. On this play, he uses a hesitation dribble to create a little separation from his defender.

In his rookie season when his pick-and-roll play was stellar, Payne was put in pick-and-rolls in 45.6 percent of his plays. Even in 2016-2017 when he was awful in pick-and-roll, 29.5 percent of his possessions were this play. Rediscovering that knack for pick-and-roll offense might be the key for Payne because it comprises such a large part of his game.

Because Payne struggles to get to the basket sometimes, the mid-range game is a big reason why he still is able to succeed in the pick-and-roll. Notice his mid-range shooting fell off a cliff in 2016-2017 the same season his pick-and-roll offensive efficiency plummeted. Per BasketballReference.com.

With the Bulls mostly torpid at the trade deadline, John Paxson has said that Payne will get rotation minutes once he returns to the Chicago Bulls rotation after the All-Star break. Henry is confident that Payne will chisel out a role for himself.

“They have a couple other young point guards and he’s trying to work his way back and he’s going to push for minutes,” Henry said. “I think he’s going to compete and I think he’s going to be ready when his opportunity gets called and he’s going to make the most of it.”

The challenge for Payne is transitioning from a starring role with Windy City to an auxiliary role with Chicago. Mastering this transition has eluded Antonio Blakeney and Cristiano Felicio who both dominated the G League, but have been inconsistent at the NBA level as their roles have shrunk when they reached the NBA.

For Payne, the pressure to translate his solid play in the G League to the NBA may be even more acute because he’s been labeled a bust from the first moment he stepped in Chicago last season.

At the Windy City Bulls game on Saturday, I was sitting by an NBA scout and we were discussing Payne. He asked me what I thought of him and I responded that he looked good, but not spectacular like Blakeney did when I came to a game in early December. I qualified all my “analysis” with the fact that I’m nowhere near an expert like he is.

He turned to me, smiled, and said “trust your eyes” on Payne.

For the Bulls sake, I hope my eyes deceived me on Saturday night.