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.”

Tennessee beats Duke to commitment for five-star prospect

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Tennessee’s Rick Barnes is up to his old recruiting tricks.

The man that brought the likes of Kevin Durant and T.J. Ford to Texas, the coach that is currently the reigning SEC regular season championship, has gotten things going in the Class of 2019 as five-star guard Josiah James committed to Tennessee on Wednesday.

James picked the Vols over Clemson and Duke. He visited Tennessee the first weekend of September and took a trip to Clemson last weekend before cancelling his visit to Duke and announcing his commitment.

A top 15 prospect in the Class of 2019, James is a 6-foot-6 left-handed combo-guard. He’s more of a smooth athlete than he is super-explosive, but he has a strong frame that can absorb contact, the vision to create for teammates and the tools to be a switchable and versatile defensive piece. He needs to get more skilled — he’s not a great shooter, and while he is a good passer and creator, his handle could stand to get better if he truly wants to be a lead guard — but the potential is there for James to blossom into a first round pick one day.

James is the third commitment for Tennessee in the Class of 2019, joining a pair of three-star forwards in Drew Pember and Davonte Gaines.

This has been an incredible 12-month stretch for Barnes.

In his third season as the head coach of Tennessee, he took the Vols to a share of the SEC regular season title with a team that didn’t have a single player on the roster that was a top 100 prospect in high school. Everyone of significance from that team returned to the program, meaning that Barnes now has a preseason top 10 team heading into the 2018-19 season.

And now he’s beating out the likes of Duke and Michigan State for a five-star, potential one-and-done player?

Impressive.

Washington lands second 2019 verbal commitment

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With three of its four seniors heading into the 2018-19 season being perimeter players, Washington has some holes to address in its 2019 recruiting class. Thus far Mike Hopkins and his staff have done just that, with both of the program’s commits to date being perimeter players.

The second verbal commitment was received Tuesday afternoon, as three-star combo guard Marcus Tsohonis announced that he will be a Husky. Tsohonis, a Jefferson HS (Portland, Oregon) product who played his grassroots basketball for Seattle Rotary Elite on the Nike EYBL circuit, joins four-star wing RaeQuan Battle in Washington’s 2019 class to date.

The 6-foot-4 Tsohonis, who can play on or off the ball, held offers from multiple Pac-12 programs but ultimately made the decision to make the trek north from Portland to Seattle for his collegiate career. His verbal commitment comes on the heels of an official visit to Washington that was taken this past weekend.

As noted above Washington will loose some key contributors on the perimeter after the upcoming season, with David Crisp, Mathysse Thybulle and Dominic Green all entering their final season of eligibility (big man Noah Dickerson is also a senior). The additions of Tsohonis and Battle should help Washington when it comes to filling those holes and continuing to build upon the foundation laid during Hopkins’ first season at the helm.

Four-star guard becomes LSU’s first 2019 commit

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Expected to be a factor both within the SEC and nationally this season, these are good times for the LSU men’s basketball program. Head coach Will Wade and his staff received more good news Tuesday, as 6-foot-2 combo guard James Bishop (Baltimore, Maryland/Mount St. Joseph HS) announced that he will be a Tiger next season.

Bishop, considered to be one of the top scoring guards in the class, is LSU’s first 2019 verbal commitment. Bishop’s pledge comes just over a week after his official visit to LSU, and just days after a visit to St. John’s. LSU beat out St. John’s, NC State, Marquette and VCU in the race for the Baltimore product, and given the Tigers’ current roster this is an important commitment.

LSU’s 2018 recruiting class is considered to be one of the nation’s best, with point guard Javonte Smart being one of the five-star prospects in that quintet (forwards Naz Reid and Emmitt Williams being the others). Add in sophomore Tremont Waters, who’s coming off of an outstanding freshman season, and LSU could be in a position next summer where its top two lead guards are at the very least testing the NBA draft waters.

Landing Bishop gives LSU another talented option, and some cover should the program lose either Waters or Smart — or both — in 2019.

Calhoun officially named head coach at DIII St. Joseph

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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Jim Calhoun has officially been named the head coach at Division III University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut.

The Hall of Famer had already announced he would be taking the job and has been working for a year to establish a men’s basketball program at the small Catholic university, which was an all-women’s school until this school year.

Calhoun also has continued to serve in an advisory role at UConn, where he served as coach for 26 seasons and led the Huskies to three of their four national titles before retiring in 2012.

The 76-year-old will return to the sidelines with a career record of 873-380 when the Blue Jays open the season on Nov. 9 against William Paterson University.

That game will be played at Trinity College in Hartford, which has a gym that seats about 2,200 people, about 1,000 more than the gymnasium at Saint Joseph.

Oregon State announces addition of transfer Payton Dastrup

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Tuesday afternoon Oregon State announced that former BYU power forward Payton Dastrup has joined the program as a transfer. Dastrup, who averaged 3.3 points and 1.8 rebounds in just under eight minutes per game last season, has two seasons of eligibility remaining. Oregon State will file a waiver on his behalf in hopes that Dastrup will be granted immediate eligibility.

Should the waiver request be denied, Dastrup will not be eligible to play until the 2019-20 season. For Oregon State’s sake, even with Dastrup’s career numbers he would fill a need for a team that bid farewell to its best big man during the spring.

Drew Eubanks’ decision to turn pro left a noticeable hole in Oregon State’s interior rotation, with senior Gligorije Rakocevic and junior Ben Kone being the most experienced returnees. Those two combined to average 3.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in 2017-18, with Rakocevic averaging 10.6 minutes per game in 27 appearances off the bench.

In addition to those two the Beavers add three scholarship newcomers to the mix this season in junior college transfer Kylor Kelley and freshmen Warren Washington and Jack Wilson. Dastrup has the ability to step away from the basket, which would give Oregon State a little versatility in the interior to go along with a perimeter/wing rotation led by Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and Ethan Thompson.