When the Washington Wizards introduced 27-year-old Gary Payton II as their newest player, signed with a hardship exception as stopgap relief amid a torrent of injuries, Coach Scott Brooks briefly mentioned a difficult decision ahead. As in, when the regular rotation players get healthier and the exception ends, the Wizards will have to determine whether to guarantee Payton’s contract.
Payton quickly made that decision more difficult than expected, and the team already is considering keeping him for the remainder of the season, according to a person familiar with the situation.
It has been only three games, but Payton, who started the season in the G League, has emerged as the Wizards’ most active perimeter defender. In fact, no player in the NBA has more steals (13) since he made his season debut with the Wizards on Dec. 23.
He also has shot down the often-cited critique of his game by making 62.5 percent of his three-point attempts. And judging by Saturday night, when he started in place of injured Bradley Beal and hit six shots to go with six steals and six rebounds, the long-armed Payton can adapt to either guard position while capably scoring or doing the dirty work.
After the Wizards (9-22) lost that game, 107-100, to the New York Knicks, Brooks no longer made brief comments about his new player. Instead, Brooks expounded on Payton’s unceasing drive.
“What makes him so good, I think it’s pretty simple: He’s been cut a few times. When you’re cut a few times, you’re hungry. You’re desperate,” Brooks said. “He plays for the right reasons. … I know he’s going to get a good chance to make it here because of his effort and his intensity and his hunger and his desire and his competition and his competitive spirit to compete every possession. That’s what we’re trying to build our program by.”
Payton may share the name of his Hall of Fame father, but that has not made life as a professional easier. In 2016, he went undrafted out of Oregon State and was waived four times over the next two years.
“One thing about the NBA is it’s all about situational opportunity,” said Isaiah Thomas, who was the 60th pick in the 2011 draft before becoming an all-star and can relate to Payton’s grind. “He has a great opportunity here with guys being hurt and him being able to showcase what he brings to the table — not only for the Wizards but 29 other teams. That guy works. I played with him briefly in L.A. — I’ve known G.P. for a little bit. He’s a guy who is going to take advantage of this opportunity, and I’m happy for him.”
Though Payton earned Pac-12 defensive player of the year honors twice in college, by NBA standards he was considered expendable because of his shaky jumper. Before last season, Payton never hit better than 41 percent on two-point field goals, while his best mark beyond the arc peaked at 24 percent.
“I wish I could tell you,” Payton responded when asked for the rationale he has heard for why he hasn’t earned a multiyear guaranteed deal in the league. “What I keep hearing is that it’s my shot, three-point shooting. All I did all summer was shoot shots, and it’s starting to carry over here, hitting open shots.”
On Saturday, Payton made two of four three-point shots, the most he has taken in a game since April 11, 2018.
The league granted Washington the hardship exception because four injured players (Thomas Bryant, CJ Miles, Moritz Wagner and John Wall) missed at least three games and have been unable to play for even longer. The exception allows teams to go over the roster limit of 15 to sign a new player. The team also brought in Johnathan Williams this week under the same exception.
While Wall and Miles will likely remain on the inactive list for the rest of the season, Wagner, after missing eight games with an ankle injury, still requires a walking boot and his return does not appear to be imminent. Bryant (stress reaction in his right foot) has participated in practice, which is the last step before receiving playing time. Still, the Wizards have not given a timeline for Bryant’s return. According to the rule, the exception will end when one of the injured players returns to action.
At that point, the Wizards have a decision to make, and that could wind up being a decision to keep Payton.
“I’ve been hungry ever since I got here,” Payton said. “In and out of the G League, trying to find somewhere to stick. I think these guys here appreciate what I do and value what I do, so I go to bat for them every day. Just taking advantage of this opportunity.”