New York Knicks: Elfrid Payton, unsurprisingly, is the leader for point guard

(Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images) /

Elfrid Payton could be the man for the New York Knicks at point guard, and it makes sense why David Fizdale prefers this.

After Monday’s preseason opener against the Washington Wizards, SNY’s Ian Begley reported that Elfrid Payton is “playing his way into the starting point guard job” for the New York Knicks. “He set the tone for the game on the ball and with his pace,” head coach David Fizdale said after the game, per Begley. “He got a lot of people involved, kept us organized. Steady and tough.”

Fizdale prioritized the point guard he thought distributed best for teammates last season: Emmanuel Mudiay. While flawed at both ends of the court, the 2015 lottery pick was the superior passer to Frank Ntilikina and Trey Burke and took the starting job from both players early and ran with it. The same may be ahead, with Payton supplanting Dennis Smith Jr. as the lead guard.

From the basic statistical eye test, the Louisiana-Lafayette product is the better passer of the two; his career 6.6 assists to 2.5 turnovers is a few steps ahead of Smith’s 5.0 assists and 2.9 turnovers, leaning more into scoring than distributing the basketball. Smith averages 14.5 points to Payton’s 11.1.

Further than that, per Cleaning the Glass, Payton’s assists percentage was in the 80th percentile, at 31.9 percent, and his assist to usage ratio was in the 89th percentile, at 1.45. Smith, with the Knicks, actually placed in the 85th percentile in assists percentage, but he dropped to the 47th percentile in assist to usage ratio and had a general usage rate in the 89th percentile, compared to Payton in the 54th.

Attribute that to how each player uses the ball when it is in their hands, given Smith’s 14 shot attempts per game for 41.3 percent on field goals, and Payton had just 9.8 attempts for 43.4 percent shooting, and 7.6 assists showed just how often he got his teammates involved.

The problems for Smith’s chances not only fall with his passing but the idea of him as a score-first guard; he is aggressive at the offensive end, but there was minimal efficiency displayed in 21 appearances with the Knicks, back injury or not. 41.3 percent shooting and 28.9 percent on three-pointers will not cut it, even if Payton is not a proficient stretch-player himself.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Smith’s inefficiency dropped him to the 10th percentile in PSA, or points per 100 shot attempts, at 95.1. Those are ice-cold numbers for someone who’s supposed to be offensively-focused, going beyond his terrific athleticism, which can only push him so far.

The silver lining is Smith’s age, at just 21 years old; he is young and hardly a finished product. Simultaneously, this is also someone the Knicks do not have a huge investment in. He is not their own draft pick, and he did not arrive as the centerpiece of the Kristaps Porzingis trade, which geared towards opening cap space and acquiring draft assets. Plus, that trial run did not prove enough to make him the point guard of the future.

Payton might not be a long-term fixture, either, after five years of solid but unspectacular play. Frank Ntilikina’s fit is as the occasional ball-handler and versatile defender off the bench. If anything, the future point guard, if the Knicks can ever find one, may not be on this roster, but in the 2020 NBA Draft.

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For now, it seems like Payton is the man. That does not mean Smith is a cast-off, as he can garner 20-plus minutes off the bench in a low-pressure, volume-scoring role to supplement the offense when it needs a different look; but it makes sense why Fizdale potentially sees the newcomer as the leading candidate to start, given what he previously sought in his point guard for the New York Knicks.