Elfrid Payton emerges as the 2014 NBA Draft’s biggest sleeper

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CHICAGO — Elfrid Payton is the most polarizing prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft.

If you’ve browsed through the litany of mock drafts in advance of Thursday night’s draft, you’ve probably seen the Louisiana-Lafayette point guard’s name everywhere from the top ten to the 20s — and every pick in between.

Plenty of scouts and draft pundits have called the 6-foot-3 Payton a sleeper in this draft — thanks in-part to his small-school upbringing and tremendous athleticism — but the soft-spoken point guard is confident about what he’ll bring to the team that selects him — wherever that may be.

“I think (I’m) the best point guard in the draft; just a leader,” Payton told NBCSports.com in Chicago. “(I’m) somebody that’s going to try to bring a winning culture and be somebody that is going to make other players around him better.”

As a sophomore, Payton put up good numbers for Louisiana-Lafayette, but many weren’t familiar with him in the college basketball world. That changed when Elfrid was a surprise addition to the USA U19 team that won gold last summer at the FIBA World Championships in Prague. Payton acknowledged that his star-studded supporting cast, filled with six McDonald’s All-Americans, had little idea about who he was or what he could do on the court, but the point guard won the starting point guard role for Billy Donovan’s squad and made a big impression on the team.

“It was cool, man. Everybody not to know me and just go in there and do well and wind up starting on that team. That was great for me. I think they were definitely surprised,” Payton said of his USA Basketball experience. “It helped a lot. Giving me a little bit of recognition. I learned a lot from those coaches and from my teammates that played there. It was big for me.”

While the basketball part of the equation came natural to Payton, Donovan worked with the guard to be more of a floor leader, something Payton credits for helping his game as a junior.

“The biggest thing (Donovan) taught me was about being a vocal leader and not just leading by example. I was able to take that back to my teammates this season and moving forward now,” Payton said.

Because of Payton’s leadership and overall play at the point guard position, the Ragin’ Cajuns made a surprise appearance in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, as they knocked off favored Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game.

Louisiana-Lafayette fell in the Round of 64 to Creighton, but Payton opened eyes with a 24-point, 8-rebound performance in which he also stuffed the stat sheet with three assists, three steals and two blocks. It was a typical effort from the junior as he averaged 19.2 points, 6 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game during the 2013-14 season.

Because of his propensity to fill up a box score, coupled with his athleticism and inconsistent shooting, Payton has been compared favorably to Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo. Payton shot 50 percent from the field as a junior, but he was only 25 percent from the three-point line and 60 percent from the free-throw line. As a former Kentucky point guard, Rondo was also a streaky perimeter shooter, as he shot 27 percent from three-point land and 57 percent from the free-throw line as a sophomore in his final season in Lexington.

Thanks in-part to his inconsistent shooting, Rondo slipped to No. 21 on draft night in 2006, but later blossomed into the starting point guard of the NBA-champion Celtics in 2008.

Payton takes pride in being compared to the four-time All-Star because of Rondo’s tenacity and willingness to make others around him better.

“The way (Rondo) plays defense, he gets his hands on a lot of balls,” Payton said. “He gets a lot of people involved. Most importantly, he gets other players around him better too. That’s what I really like (about him).”

Ed Isaacson of NBA Draft Blog also sees some similarities between Payton and Rondo and because Rondo has thrived in the league, Isaacson believes Payton is not as likely to fall in the draft as Rondo once did.

“I’m not very big on comparisons, but this is a case where I can see where it comes from and agree in some ways with it,” Isaacson said to NBCSports.com. “Payton, like Rondo, is capable of doing almost everything his team needs from him. They both even have the same major weakness — perimeter shooting. I think where the comparison is at its best is on the defensive end, where both can be pests on the perimeter, force opponents into mistakes, and have no problem getting involved on the boards. I think the fact that Rondo turned out to be a very good NBA player has eased the way that many teams are looking at what Payton can do, and you won’t find the same polarization on his style of play.”

It also doesn’t hurt that another small-school guard, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, has found immediate NBA success after four years at Weber State. Payton acknowledges that Lillard is another guard that he admires and Lillard has even taken to Twitter to back Payton’s game.

“My coach gave me a lot of articles about him last year and even more this year. That’s definitely someone I look up to,” Payton said of Lillard.

The comparisons for Payton may be favorable, but he acknowledged that he still has a long ways to go to be mentioned in the same breath as those All-Star caliber point guards in the NBA.

“I think I’m ready to handle it. I think there’s going to be some challenges but we all have the same challenges ahead of us,” Payton said. “I always have a chip on my shoulder and coming from a small school, that makes it a little bit bigger.”

College Basketball Power Rankings: Kentucky drops out of the Top 25

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I’m not sure that this Kentucky season can be considered a worst-case scenario.

Kentucky fans have seen a worst-case scenario.

That came during the 2012-13 season, when a Wildcat team that was trending towards the back end of the top 25 lost their star center Nerlens Noel to a torn ACL in February, dooming them to the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Robert Morris.

That is a worst-case scenario, and barring something totally unforeseen, this Kentucky team is not going to turn into that Kentucky team.

This group looks much more like the team we saw the following year, the one that featured Julius Randle, James Young, the Harrison twins and Willie Cauley-Stein and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 8 seed with a 24-10 record before making a run to the national title game. That team had plenty of talent, but they never quite gelled until March.

This year’s team does not have that same level of talent, but they are running into some of the same problems.

The question is whether or not this group actually has the potential to come together and make a run like that 2014 team.

RELATED: Kentucky just is not that good

And frankly, I still think they do. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has emerged as a go-to guy while Kevin Knox had seemingly regained his confidence before a poor performance in the home loss to Florida. Quade Green has returned to the lineup, as has Jarred Vanderbilt, who might be the key to unlock the potential on this roster.

In an ideal world, Kentucky’s length and athleticism allows them to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams while the playmaking of Vanderbilt and Green makes their offense fluid enough that they overcome some of their shooting issues. I can still tell myself a story where Kentucky finds a way to put it all together for six straight games in March.

But that’s not who they are right now.

And with each passing game, I grow less and less confident that the elite will ever come out of this group.

Kentucky is not a top 25 basketball team right now. They are nowhere near one of the favorites to win a national title right now. And, at this point, Kentucky fans would do well to adjust their expectations, as a trip out of the Sweet 16 should be considered a success.

Here is the full top 25.

1. Villanova, 18-1 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Purdue, 19-2 (2)
3. Virginia, 18-1 (5)
4. Kansas, 16-3 (13)
5. Michigan State, 17-3 (7)
6. Duke, 17-2 (10)
7. West Virginia, 16-3 (4)
8. Arizona, 16-4 (8)
9. Xavier, 18-3 (11)
10. Oklahoma, 14-4 (6)
11. North Carolina, 16-4 (17)
12. Texas Tech, 15-4 (3)
13. Cincinnati, 17-2 (19)
14. Ohio State, 17-4 (22)
15. Auburn, 17-2 (18)
16. Tennessee, 13-5 (23)
17. Wichita State, 15-4 (9)
18. Clemson, 16-3 (20)
19. Saint Mary’s, 19-2 (NR)
20. Gonzaga, 17-4 (16)
21. Nevada, 18-3 (NR)
22. Florida, 14-5 (NR)
23. Rhode Island, 15-3 (NR)
24. Arizona State, 15-4 (14)
25. TCU, 14-5 (25)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Seton Hall, No. 15 Kentucky, No. 21 Michigan, No. 24 Miami

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 19 Saint Mary’s, No. 21 Nevada, No. 22 Florida, No. 23 Rhode Island

VIDEO: Northern Colorado wins game with halfcourt buzzer beater

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Northern Colorado knocked off North Dakota on Saturday night thanks to a half court buzzer-beating three from Andre Spight.

Spight is averaging 20.3 points on the season and finished with 34 points and six assists in the 94-91 win.

Clemson’s Grantham tears ACL

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The news on Donte Grantham’s knee was not good.

No. 20 Clemson announced on Sunday morning that Grantham, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, would miss the rest of the season after tearing his ACL in a win over Notre Dame on Saturday.

“I’m disappointed that Donte’s career at Clemson had to end this way,” head coach Brad Brownell said. “He was putting together a terrific season statistically, but he really helps this team is so many ways. He’s been a pleasure to coach and it has been fun to watch him mature and grow into the leader of our program.”

Grantham was averaging 14.2 points and 7.1 boards this year.

The Tigers are 16-3 on the season and in line to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid.

VIDEO: West Virginia honored Andrew Jones before game vs. Texas

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The West Virginia basketball team donned burnt orange ‘Big 12 Strong’ warmup shirts with the No. 1 on the back in honor of Texas point guard Andrew Jones.

Jones was diagnosed with leukemia earlier this month.

Texas Tech also honored Jones before a game this week, and Texas has raised more than $100,000 for his medical expenses.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: No. 7 Wichita State, No. 8 Texas Tech lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

It’s hard to argue with the performance that J.P. Macura had on Saturday. No. 11 Xavier went into Newark and knocked off No. 19 Seton Hall, 73-64, behind 27 points, five boards and three assists from Macura.

This win was particularly important for Xavier, who remain just a game out of first place in the Big East and in great position to make a run at getting a top three seed, which would mean they likely won’t have to play Villanova until the Big East title game. The loss is the second in a row for Seton Hall and the their third loss in four games.

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: Edwards finished with 22 points, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers as the No. 3 Boilermakers blew out Iowa on the road.
  • MALIK NEWMAN, Kansas: Newman finished with 24 points and seven boards, including a personal 7-0 run with three minutes left to help No. 10 Kansas remain in sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with a 70-67 win over Baylor.
  • BRYCE BROWN, Auburn: Brown finished with 28 points as Auburn erased a 14-point halftime deficit to knock off Georgia 79-65 and remain within a game of first-place in the SEC.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: In a win over No. 24 Kansas State, TCU’s second-straight win over a ranked team, Wade went for 20 pints, six boards, six assists, two blocks and two steals.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Houston landed themselves their first marquee win of the season as they pounded No. 7 Wichita State in Houston, 73-59. Rob Gray led the way with 24 points and four assists, putting the Cougars in a position where earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament is feasible. There is still plenty of work left to do, but this is the start they needed.

The bigger question mark, however, is Wichita State, who also lost at home to SMU this week. The Shockers are nowhere near as good as many expected them to be. Their offense isn’t good enough to make up for the fact that they aren’t guarding anyone.

GAME OF THE DAY

Trae Young went for 48 points, 34 of which came after halftime as the Sooners erased a 19-point deficit, but thanks to a Kendall Smith three at the end of regulation, this game went into overtime. Young had shots at the buzzer in regulation and in overtime to win the game and missed both, as the Pokes escaped with an 83-81 win.

Young needed 39 shots to get those 48 points. We went through whether or not that is too many shots for him here.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Iowa State, who can’t guard anyone and is probably the worst team in the Big 12 this season, knocked off No. 8 Texas Tech, 70-52. The Red Raiders have now lost three of their last four games – all of which came on the road – after winning at Kansas. Texas Tech is also now just 1-3 in the four games since Zach Smith broke his foot, but they also beat Baylor by 24 points and won at Kansas when Smith played 10 total minutes.

So you explain Texas Tech to me. Because I don’t get it.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

The Florida Gators moved into sole possession of first place in the SEC thanks to a 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday. It was hardly a pretty game – Florida shot 33 percent from the floor and 6-for-30 from three – but the Gators were able to hang on thanks to a questionable no-call in the final seconds.

No. 20 Clemson held on to beat Notre Dame at home on Saturday, 67-58, but missing out on a commitment from Zion Williamson wasn’t the only bad news of the day. Star forward Donte Grantham went down with a knee injury midway through the second half. He averages 14.3 points and 7.1 boards. Losing him would be disastrous for the Tigers.

No. 14 Arizona had to rally down the stretch, but the Wildcats did. Trailing by as many as 11 points late in the second half at Stanford, the Wildcats survived as Dorian Pickens missed a three at the buzzer. The win puts Arizona all alone in first place in the Pac-12.

Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and Donte DiVincenzo added 17 points off the bench as No. 1 Villanova blew out UConn in Hartford, 81-61.

No. 13 Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s both won, meaning that the Gaels still hold a one game lead over the Zags in the WCC. Nevada knocked off Boise State, giving the Wolf Pack a two-game lead in the Mountain West.

At this point, Pitt barely counts as ACC competition. But they are and No. 5 Duke beat them 81-54 tonight.

Jevon Carter went for 22 points and eight assists as No. 6 West Virginia knocked off Texas, 86-51. The game was closer than the final score indicates, as the Mountaineers pulled away late.

The star of the day for No. 12 Cincinnati was Gary Clark, who finished with 14 points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and two blocks, in an 86-60 win over East Carolina.

Luke Maye went for 17 points and 11 boards to lead four players in double figures as No. 15 North Carolina held on to beat Josh Pastner and Georgia Tech, 80-66.

It ended up not being much of a game when the Big Ten invaded Madison Square Garden as No. 22 Ohio State put a beating on Minnesota, 67-49. Minnesota lost Jordan Murphy to an ankle injury in the game as well.