Why the Warriors are desperate to get Gary Payton II back in the roster

During the 2021 G League bubble, Warriors director of team development Kent Lacob became somewhat enamored with a reserve playmaker shooting less than 20% from 3 range points.

On a scorer-laden Raptors 905 team, Gary Payton II was the do-it-all role player — a 6-foot-3 ballhawk who led the league in steals, defended all five positions, set textbook screens, rebounded to a high rhythm and dictated the tempo. When the Warriors needed to complete their roster that spring, Lacob helped convince general manager Bob Myers to put Payton on a 10-day contract.

Less than a year later, he’s a rotational player, fan favorite, and All-Defensive Team contender. In case people doubted Payton’s worth, they just had to look at the Warriors over the past two and a half weeks. With him sidelined with a sore left knee, Golden State went 4-4, often lacking in energy and defensive grit — two of Payton’s greatest assets.

But while head coach Steve Kerr tinkered with his rotations to make up for several key absences, Payton’s versatility perhaps missed him the most. With fast hands, a 38½-inch vertical leap and a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Payton is a major luxury for any personnel – the type of wing who can unlock lineups by filling in every position.

Despite being tied with Quinndary Weatherspoon as the Warriors’ second-shortest player, the 29-year-old Payton has started several games this season as a power forward with Draymond Green out. Occasionally, Payton has even teamed up with 7-foot crosses in the dunker spot – the area along the baseline, just outside the lane, where players wait for a pass from a pilot.

Now that Stephen Curry will miss at least two weeks with a left foot injury, Payton is poised to log plenty of minutes at point guard. After returning to practice on Friday, he was listed as questionable for Sunday’s loss to San Antonio, only to be ruled out before the game. There’s a good chance Payton will return on the Warriors’ next five-city trip, with Tuesday’s game in Orlando a possibility.

“Obviously we want him to be healthy right now,” guard Jordan Poole said of Payton, who has started the last five games he’s played, averaging 11 points and 2 .2 interceptions. “He just transforms our defense. He gives us so much energy. He brings a different dynamic to our team.

Payton’s versatility dates back to his senior year at Spring Valley High School in Las Vegas. With no one else on this team over 6-foot-2, he often played center. Much of Payton’s time was spent setting up high screens for the Grizzlies point guard and riding hard to the edge.

As he progressed through prep school, college, and two years at Oregon State, the coaches plugged him in where they needed him. This benefited Payton’s teams, but ultimately hurt his draft stock.

Scouts tend to look for certain things the size of Payton players: high shooting percentages, court awareness, solid passing. Since Payton has been ping-ponging between so many positions, he hasn’t had much of a chance to develop his point guard skills.

In the five years since he was undrafted in 2016, he played for four NBA teams and five G League teams. Inconsistent shooting prevented him from carving out a lasting niche. But every time Payton watched the Warriors, he saw a positionless brand of basketball tailor-made for him.

“I kept saying over the years, if I ever ended up at Golden State, from a staff perspective, it made so much sense,” Payton said. “You have so much attention on Klay, Draymond, Curry and these other great players. I can sneak in and do what I have to do.

Lacob accepted. Studying Payton’s 13-game stint with the 905 Raptors in the G League bubble, he noticed all the hallmarks of a complementary piece in a winning team. Never mind that Payton was the Toronto branch’s eighth leading scorer.

In 10 games last season with the Warriors, he spent 57% of his minutes at small forward, 41% at shooting and just 2% at point guard. Last summer, Payton rented an Airbnb near the Chase Center so he could train daily with trainers and plead for another contract.

At an age when some fringe players could strike lucrative deals overseas, Payton volunteered to play alongside teenagers on the Warriors’ Summer League team. All those extra minutes only reinforced for Kerr that Payton has the versatility he values.

After beating Avery Bradley for the last spot on the roster, Payton has become one of the Warriors’ most reliable rotation players. Golden State outscored opponents by 4.6 more points per 100 possessions with him on the ground than with him out. Payton’s defensive rating of 102 is second best on the team behind Andre Iguodala, who has been limited to 26 games.

All of this has some fans wondering: Can the luxury tax-strapped Warriors afford to re-sign Payton in free agency? And if not, how would they compensate for his unique skills?

For now, Payton is just enjoying being wanted. Not all teams would have anticipated the greatness of a G League bench player.

“I’ve probably seen Gary play in 100 G League games in his career,” Payton said. “Everything he did impacted the game at such a high level, without even having to touch the ball. Everything we look for in players, Gary embodies that.

Connor Letourneau is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @Con_Chron

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