Thanks in part to Stephen Curry, the meteoric rise of Murray State’s Cameron Payne heading into Thursday’s NBA Draft had precedent.
Like Curry, who played at Davidson College, Payne is a guard from a mid-major college who was largely ignored by elite programs in part because of their size — Curry is 6-3, 190 pounds; Payne is 6-2, 180 pounds.
Payne was selected with the 14th pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder, becoming the first first-round NBA Draft pick in Murray State history.
Murray State coach Mike McMahon remembers seeing Payne for the first time and thinking he looked 10 years old. But Payne, a point guard for Lausanne Collegiate School, was far beyond his years.
“His skill level was off the charts,” McMahon said. “His basketball IQ was beautiful to watch. He could see plays that no one else on the court saw. He could get his own shot whenever he wanted.”
Sounds like Curry.
And Curry’s breakthrough success this season, winning NBA MVP honors and leading the Golden State Warriors to their first championship in 40 years, has NBA scouts looking twice at Payne. The Ohio Valley Conference Athlete of the Year ranked in the top 15 among NCAA Division I players last season in points (20.3) and assists (6.0) per game.
Payne was also the heart and soul of Murray State basketball, the player who rallied his team in the final minutes of their conference tournament semifinal game this season, who verbally willed his team to another victory after fouling out and who stayed an hour after home games to sign autographs.
“What also stood out to us right away was his charisma,” McMahon said. “He just has a swagger about him. He plays with a chip on his shoulder in a positive way to where he believes he is the best player on the floor.”
Payne, who was recruited by former Murray State head coach Steve Prohm (now at Iowa State) and assistant coach William Small, also went under the radar because he was limited in showcasing his abilities.
“I played on a pretty good AAU team,” Payne said. “I played with Nick King (now at Alabama) and Johnathan Williams. I came off the bench, so I really didn’t get that much exposure like they did.”
Payne helped the Racers (29-6) capture the nation’s attention with a 25-game winning streak this season, the second longest in Division I last season behind Kentucky’s 38.
“The best thing you can be told about a player is that he makes the people around him better,” McMahon said. “That is Cameron’s best trait.”
Payne’s other strengths also make him a hot NBA commodity. He gives teammates the ball where they are most effective. He has the ability to get his own shot whenever he wants. He draws consistent double teams. He has great court vision. He always finds the open man for 3-pointers. And he has relentless self-confidence.
Trailing Morehead State 72-64 with 5:30 remaining in the Ohio Valley Conference semifinals, Payne rallied the Racers to an 80-77 victory. He scored eight of Murray’s last 16 points, including a 3-pointer with 54 seconds left for the lead.
“It looked like we were about to call it a season,” McMahon said. “Cameron just took over. They were just two big time, contested, (long-range) shots with the season on the line.”
Earlier in the season against Southeast Missouri State Payne fouled out with 2:43 left and the Racers trailing by four. This time he helped rally his teammates from the bench as the Racers won in overtime to keep their winning streak alive.
“Most star players would pout and think the game is over,” McMahon said. “He was the biggest cheerleader, the most fired up guy.”
Payne stayed for an hour after the Racers’ 16 home games to sign autographs. Every game Knox Poyner waited for Payne. They grew to know each other well. Payne even attended Poyner’s birthday party, which included a cake decorated like Payne’s No. 1 Murray State jersey.
“He became a hero-type to some of these young kids and was a great role model,” said McMahon. “To see (Payne and Poynor) interact and the relationship that they built over two years was special.”
Payne appears to have Curry down pat:
Video courtesy Alex Kennedy via Vine
Above: Courtesy of NBA via Twitter
Three other players from ASN-affiliated schools heard their names called in the NBA Draft: