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If The Glove Fits: The dramatic rise of Warriors guard Gary Payton II

Gary Payton II, Warriors

In front of 19,000 screaming fans, Stephen Curry torched the Phoenix Suns for 38 points.

But a 6-hour drive away on the very same day, in front of a more modest crowd of 400, another 6-foot-3 point guard dropped 51 points, including seven triples. A “Curry-esque” performance.

It was December 3, 2016. A typical night in the office for the two-time NBA MVP, and a breakthrough night for Gary Payton II. 

Or so it seemed.

At the time, Payton was still trying to find his footing with the Rio Grande Vipers of the G-League (then D-League). And despite the 51-point anomaly, his laurels still rested on his defense.

After winning the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award twice, Payton had gone undrafted in 2016. Over the next several years, that 51-point game proved to be more of the exception than the expectation.

Gary Payton ping-ponged around the edges of the league, teetering between the precarious line of snagging a fringe roster spot and playing overseas.

Just a glance at his résumé from 2016 to 2021 is dizzying:

  • Undrafted in 2016 NBA Draft.
  • Signed and waived by Houston Rockets.
  • Signed by Rockets’ G-League team.
  • Signed and waived by Milwaukee Bucks.
  • Not given another 10-day contract from the Los Angeles Lakers.
  • Waived by the Portland Trail Blazers.
  • Not given another 10-day from the Washington Wizards.
  • Traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ G-League team.
  • Traded to the Lakers’ G-League team.
  • Signed with the Wizards again.
  • Drafted 15th overall in first G-League Draft by Toronto Raptors’ G-League team.
  • Signed a 10-day contract with the Golden State Warriors.
  • Signed for the rest of the season by Warriors.
  • Waived by Warriors before 2021-22 season.
  • Signed with Warriors after he cleared waivers.
  • Signed guaranteed contract for rest of season with Warriors.

The main culprit for his roller-coaster of a career was obvious. No one questioned Payton’s defensive prowess. But it was his offense that rarely came along for the ride.

Even though it was always expected of him.

As the son of Hall of Famer Gary Payton Sr, nicknamed “The Glove” for his stingy on-ball defense, GPII had sky-high expectations. And every fan or opponent within earshot made sure he heard it.

As early as third grade pickup games on the schoolyard.

From the mouths of eight-year-olds came jabs and taunts on why Little Gary – as his family called him – wasn’t as good as his nine-time All-Star father.

As a freshman in high school, Payton even told his dad to stop coming to games. The bullying was too harsh. And while pressure piled on to be just like his legendary pops, all Payton II wanted to do was simply be himself.

But it was the lack of a true offensive identity that kept the younger Payton from following in his father’s footsteps into the NBA. He could finish at the rim with ease. He had unparalleled athleticism for his size. 

But Gary Payton II wasn’t a playmaker or a creator – prerequisites for being a point guard at the highest level. Not to mention his shooting woes.

Payton was seeping out of the confines of what most thought a “point guard” should be. Because of it, teams didn’t know what to do with him.

But when Payton was with the Raptors’ G-League squad, Raptors 905, they used him in a way that foreshadowed his unique role on the Warriors.

They had him setting screens. Playing in the dunker’s spot. Posting up. Using him similarly to how the Brooklyn Nets utilized 6-foot-4 “point-center” Bruce Brown.

Payton’s offensive duties were all normal tasks for a traditional center or power forward. Except GPII was a 6-foot-3 guard.

So it defied conventional wisdom that he actually excelled in the role. He was used as a small “big man” on offense. And it kept him on the floor long enough to unleash his menacing defense.

Even on the sidelines for Raptors 905, Payton would be calling out defensive coverages like a coach. It was clear he had a brilliant mind on that side of the floor. And others were noticing.

Life only sped up from there.

In the 2021 G-League bubble in Orlando, Payton took home the Defensive Player of the Year award.

A month later, Payton signed two consecutive 10-day contracts with the Warriors, resulting in a non-guaranteed contract for the rest of the season.

When the 2020-21 season ended though, he knew better than to take the opportunity for granted. Every day before Summer League, and throughout the offseason, Gary Payton worked with Warriors assistant coaches Ron Adams and Nick Kerr – tinkering with his shot and improving his offensive game.

In October, after fighting for the 15th roster spot in training camp, Payton was waived by the Warriors. Only to be claimed by them again days later. At the time, veterans on the squad were pushing for Avery Bradley to snatch the last roster spot. And usually, Kerr listens to his leaders.

Outsiders can only speculate as to why Kerr chose not to, and instead go with Payton. But input from his assistant coaches, especially the ones Payton had worked with all summer, may have played a role.

Regardless, no one second-guesses the decision now. In mere months, GPII has gone from the brink of free agency to being a key cog on a title contender. 

In the 2021-22 season, Payton maintained a relentless mindset – knowing this could all be taken away at any second. He’d put up hundreds of shots after each practice and shootaround. He worked with Warriors assistant coach Jama Mahlalela, especially on his corner 3s.

And that’s not by accident.

When Gary Payton arrived at Golden State in April 2021, they noticed his three-point percentages were higher from the corners than they were elsewhere. Considering he was 21 of 81 (25.6%) from downtown before he joined the Warriors, it seemed counterintuitive for Golden State’s coaches to have him let it fly.

Yet that’s exactly what their message was: if you’re open, shoot it.

And Payton has answered the bell.

This year, in 56 games before the All-Star break, Payton has taken 53 corner 3s. He’s made 21 of them, good for a respectable 39.6%. From the left corner, in particular, he’s 11-23 (47.8%).

Payton’s diligence in perfecting his shot caught the eye of one of the greatest shooters to ever walk the Earth.

“I’ve seen Gary working on his shot every day since he came here,” Klay Tbompson told the SF Chronicle. “His athleticism is insane, and he’s going to be in this league for a long time and be a great player — especially if he’s knocking down 3s consistently.”

And therein lies the not-so-secret key to earning playing time for Payton: be valuable enough on offense to keep him in games.

Outside of spotting up in the corner, the Warriors used him similarly to how Raptors 905, and some others before, have employed him. Set screens, slash to the rim, and play in the dunker’s spot. Payton II doesn’t fit the mold of a point guard, or really, of any position.

“He’s tough for guys to guard,” Steve Kerr told The Undefeated. “Because if you’re used to guarding someone that size, you’re on the perimeter. You’re guarding pick-and-roll. That kind of stuff. With Gary, you’re having to block him out. You’re having to treat him like a big guy. And guards just aren’t doing that.”

A comparison that oddly fits might be Nikola Jokic.

Jokic has the offensive skills of a guard, trapped in the body of a big man. Whereas Gary Payton II has the offensive skills of a big man, trapped in the body of a guard.

His athleticism for his size, though, isn’t by accident.

Payton II’s mother, Monique, was a track star for Skyline High in Oakland, California. And a basketball star for Merritt College.

Not only could she compete in the high jump and long jump, she also had the quickness and defensive chops to set the record for most steals in a game (15) for Merritt.

With Gary Payton Sr. often traveling, it was Monique Payton who became the loudest voice in her son’s life. Even now, she still texts him every day to tell him how proud she is.

But GPII’s career isn’t followed merely by his own family; in fact, one NBA All-Star is also fully invested in Payton II’s journey.

Chicago Bulls’ star DeMar DeRozan viewed Gary Payton Sr. as a mentor figure growing up. And DeRozan met Little Gary when he was just a kid.

When Payton II was in college at Oregon State, he even played 1-on-1 with DeRozan as part of a training session.

DeMar got a few buckets, but Payton II recalled he also got a few stops. His persistent aggression on defense had surprised even an NBA All-Star.

And as GPII continued his journey, he had a permanent fan in DeRozan.

“He’s not loud and crazy, obnoxious like his father,” DeRozan said. “He’s definitely the opposite of it, but with the same intensity internally.”

The Bulls’ star went so far as to say he watches every single Warriors game he can – just to watch Payton II and cheer him on from afar.

But at this point, most are clamoring to cheer Gary Payton on from up close.

His defensive pressure on opposing guards has always been a thing of beauty. It’s only highlighted now that, instead of defending G-Leaguers, he’s picking the pockets of Zach LaVine, LaMelo Ball, and Donovan Mitchell.

There’s also never been a bigger need for his defense, as nine of the league’s top 15 scorers last year were guards. With Draymond Green sidelined and Klay coming off of two injuries, the Warriors have an urgent need for an elite perimeter defender.

And now that his unique offense has come along for the ride, Payton – or the “Young Glove” as the Warriors faithful have dubbed him – can finally shine on the big stage.

But if you just look a little deeper – underneath his exceptional defense, behind his rim-rattling dunks – there lies a son bursting out of his father’s shadow.

No longer is he enveloped by childish taunts. No longer is he suffocating under lofty expectations.

Instead, Gary Payton II is just playing his own game. 

In a game against the Charlotte Hornets, Payton gets the ball in transition, with only ex-Warrior Kelly Oubre Jr. in front of him.

Oubre had been a rotation player for the Warriors last year, while Payton was still in the G-League.

It’s November 3, 2021 – roughly 5 years since Payton’s mostly-forgotten 51-point game for the Vipers.

And, almost as if he can sense the unspoken narratives lingering in the air, Payton cocks the ball back. And unleashes a one-handed spike on Oubre’s head.

18,000 fans in Chase Center roar to their feet. Not for Payton’s signature defense, but for his offense.

Klay Thompson has his hands on his head in disbelief. Steph Curry has both arms raised in awe.

Gary Payton II has finally arrived.