New York Knicks’ Elfrid Payton Fires Back at Critics


Elfrid Payton, Knicks

Certainly, Knicks guard Elfrid Payton is well aware of the assessments being made of his game from outside. He’s struggled lately, on an individual level, but he makes clear that his personal on-court failings do not get in the way of how he judges his performance.

The Knicks have the No. 4 seed in the East and will open against the Hawks on Sunday evening. For Payton, that is what matters.

“I assess how I’m playing by how my team is doing,’’ Payton said on a team virtual press conference Thursday. “And we’ve been winning. So, we’re in the playoffs.”

Indeed, the Knicks closed the season with 16 wins in their final 20 games, a stretch that ensured the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2013. Not only that, but the Knicks dodged the NBA’s play-in tournament and even secured homecourt advantage.

In other words, for Payton, there’s no need to worry about what’s going on between his ears.

“I’m confident,” he said. “I work on my game. I’m confident.”

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Elfrid Payton Still Starting, but Has Had Minutes Cut

Still, the numbers in recent weeks have been rough for Payton. Sure, the Knicks have played well, but in the team’s last 16 games, Payton has scored an average of 4.9 points with 2.6 assists in 16.5 minutes. He is shooting 35.0% from the field in that span, which dates back to April 16.

Before those 16 games, Payton was averaging 11.9 points on 44.8% shooting in 26.0 minutes. He might have confidence, but he’s not playing like it. In fact, Knicks beat writer Marc Berman recently highlighted an outing — the 0-point performance in 14 minutes against the Celtics in the season finale — that represented “rock bottom” for Payton.

Coach Tom Thibodeau, even as he has pared back Payton’s minutes, remains committed to him as the team’s starter.

“Look, I’ve been saying this all the time,” Thibodeau said. “The depth of our team is one of our strengths. Elfrid, a great asset to our team, has something to offer us. His size, defense, they are important factors. And you look at it overall. What is the function of the team? Like most young players, there are ups and downs. You don’t have to shoot well to play well. Just get out there and please tell me what you can do.”

Hawks’ Trae Young a Huge Challenge for Payton

What the Knicks have to hope Payton can do is help slow down Hawks star Trae Young, one of the best young players in the league. Young averaged 25.3 points and 9.4 assists this season, and is the leader of a potent Hawks offense. Atlanta averaged 115.9 points per 100 possessions (eighth in the NBA) after coach Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce in March.

Young has had to sacrifice his own scoring (he averaged 29.5 points last year) to benefit the Hawks’ offense as a whole, but he still will be the focal point of the Knicks defense. He’s made the transition from a productive young player on a bad team to one leading a winner.

As Young told reporters, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

I hear people talk about my growth and people talk about me going from a guy who only cares about stats to now it’s more about winning. It’s super frustrating, hearing those types of things. Those are compliments, but it’s a frustrating one, just because that’s not who I was to begin with. For me, I’ve always been about winning since high school, playing with (AAU team), been the same way. With last year and the year before, obviously we weren’t winning, but I’m still out there trying to do whatever it takes to win. And if I’m scoring a lot, then that narrative gets brought on to you even though it’s not because of that. For me, it’s always been about winning and I’ve always tried to keep that the thing. And it’s happening now.

Payton is likely to remain the starter for the length of the series. But how effective he is will depend on how much he can limit Young.