I wouldn’t say it reached quite the level of Linsanity, but Gary Payton II exploded onto the scene with a strong first week for the Washington Wizards. He was a cross between a whirling dervish and the Tasmanian Devil on defense, and his activity level provided the Wizards with a real spark, albeit a short-lived one.
With Isaiah Thomas physically limited (trying to be polite about it) and Bradley Beal saving energy to carry the offense (also being polite), the Wizards weren’t containing anyone on the perimeter. Being less polite, I’d say they had one of the worst defensive backcourts in history, even by YMCA standards. That might be dramatic…but I stand by it.
Payton joined the team in late December and provided Wizards fans with a Christmas gift: a tiny glimmer of defensive hustle. In his first game, a December 23 win against the Knicks, Payton played 34 minutes and contributed 10 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 steals. He looked like the basketball equivalent of Ed Reed and I was thoroughly losing my mind watching him be a ball hawk. He even shot 4-for-8 from the field and made his only three-pointer.
In his second game, the Wizards got blown out by the Pistons but Payton played another 30 minutes and recorded 10 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocks. He once again shot 4-for-8 overall and made 2-of-3 threes. The game was a total beat down but his individual play was still a bright spot.
His third game was a close loss against the Knicks and may have been his best individual game of the season. Payton had 15 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and 6 steals. He was 6-of-9 from the field and 2-of-4 from three. Once again the team lost but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort on Payton’s part.
Everything after that was spectacularly unremarkable.
Marcus Smart is the gold standard for guards who don’t shoot well but are such good defenders they help the team anyway. Because we’ve been aware of Smart for so long, it surprised me that Payton is about a year older than Smart. Payton also has a much leaner frame than Smart, which limits him in taking on bigger players the way Smart does.
As you can see (below), Smart is a better three-point shooter and gets to the free throw line a lot more. He’s just a more effective scorer overall. Payton collects a few more rebounds and steals but Smart is clearly the superior player on paper and by the eye test.
“The Mitten” is an appropriate nickname because he’s like a less good version of his dad, Gary “The Glove” Payton. He was still the Wizards’ best defender this season, though.
Granted, that’s a low bar, but he proved to be a better than average defender. I have a feeling he would be even better if he was surrounded by other competent defenders. That wasn’t in the cards this season, unfortunately.
Everything related to shooting. He is not good at that. Like, at all. To the point where he might have a hard time ending up on roster next season.
In today’s league, you have to be special on defense to justify being on the court if you can’t shoot. And though he’s a good defender, he’s not at an elite enough level to compensate for what a team loses on offense.
Take Luguentz Dort for instance. The job he’s done guarding James Harden so far in the playoffs will earn him minutes and a place in the league. Dort and Payton are both about 6-3, but Dort is probably 25 pounds heavier. That additional bulk and strength allows him to guard bigger players in a way that Payton can’t.
Plus, Dort is just enough of a threat driving the ball to keep defenses honest. And the fact that’s he only 21 leaves hope that his shooting will improve. At 27, it’s safe to assume Payton is a finished product.
Future with the Wizards
I don’t expect to see Payton with the Wizards next year. He seems like the type of player who will bounce back and forth between the NBA and the G League. If the Wizards bring back any of their end-of-the-bench guards, I would prefer Jerian Grant. He’s a better perimeter shooter and distributor. On behalf of the Washington fan-base, I wish Payton well in his future endeavors.