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Sixers free agency targets: Gary Payton II

Leaving The Bay seems unlikely for the defensive-minded journeyman, but his skill-set would be welcomed in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Golden State Warriors Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

As the 2021-22 NBA season progresses closer and closer toward a conclusion, avenues for the Philadelphia 76ers to enhance their roster draw near. Among those avenues is NBA Free Agency, which kicks off June 30 at 6 p.m. EST. As that date approaches, Liberty Ballers will be breaking down some free agents who might make sense in a Sixers uniform.

Gary Payton II

  • 2021-22 statistical profile: 71 games, 17.6 minutes, 7.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 67.9 percent true shooting (.616/.358/.603 split)
  • Playoff statistics: 12 games, 16.9 minutes, 6.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 75.1 percent true shooting (.659/.533/.667 split)
  • Advanced metrics: +3.5 Estimated Plus-Minus (30th overall), -0.1 O-EPM (168th), +3.6 D-EPM (second)

After half a decade spanning the NBA and G League, Gary Payton II finally found a home with the Golden State Warriors this past season. He secured the team’s final roster spot and quickly cemented himself as a fixture of the rotation by early November. His 71 games played this season matched his previous four years combined, while his 1,247 minutes easily eclipsed his prior 808.

Payton — an unrestricted free agent whose Early Bird Rights the Warriors hold — established himself as Golden State’s premier point-of-attack menace. He provided All-Defensive-caliber services on a per-minute basis — that D-EPM is no fluke. Of course, any candidacy for that nomination was halted by his minutes load, but he’s nonetheless an exquisite defender.

He excels at applying pressure on the ball and Icing screens with his sturdy, 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame. Jittery ball-handlers can scoot past him, yet he knows how to guard larger opponents by aggressively crowding them and getting into their personal bubble.

His hands are among the league’s swiftest and stickiest; if it hasn’t already, NBA2K certainly should bestow him the Pick Pocket Badge. He often maneuvers around screens seamlessly. Both playing the passing lanes and prepping for picks, his anticipation is sharp. The Warriors are pretty comfortable having him switch across assignments and while he’s best against guards, he’s not a one-hit wonder. His on-ball exploits are matched by few at the guard position around the NBA.

Payton is a legitimately special defender because he’s not confined to on-ball scenarios for his artistry to glimmer. His strong hands allow him to play the nail quite well as a stunt-and-recover helper. His screen navigation translates off the ball, where he stays in lockstep with assignments while playing the chaser role (as I’ve said before, this is an archetype the Sixers could really use defensively). The way he dips his shoulders to get low around screens and remains mobile enough to track his opponent is a rare trait.

He’s also prompt in executing switches, a subtle yet important component of switch-heavy defenses. Elite 2021-22 defenses like the Warriors, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat all practice this idea. His ball denial is exceptional. If needed, he can render possessions 4-on-4. The type of deployment in which he thrives is fairly vast. He’s a defensive specialist, but one whose specialty is extensive.

Payton’s defensive value, both overarching and with the Sixers, should be evident. He’d bring necessary juice on the ball, where he’s most comfortable against guards but can also suffice versus wings on a whim. Away from the action, he pesters off-ball scoring guards around picks, assumes the act of shutdown corner on denials and is a responsible crossing guard at the nail.

He’s not exactly the tall, sprawling wing defender everyone seems to be craving for this Philadelphia club, but those are rather challenging to acquire, especially on the free agent market at a frugal price. Payton is good, though, and his malleable defense would plug holes for the Sixers.

Many defensive-oriented perimeter players with a limited jumper will see their impact and playing time depreciate in the postseason. That’s not at all been the case for Payton, who’s receiving approximately the same amount of minutes these playoffs as he did in the regular season and producing at roughly the same rate. His defense continues to bother folks, and his distinct offensive package has persisted as useful.

Payton is an absolutely tremendous cutter and finisher. According to Synergy, he generated 1.598 points per possession (97th percentile) on cuts this regular season. Among 120 players who recorded at least 40 such possessions, his PPP led all participants. That sort of PPP is so astronomically good that it seems like a misprint.

He typically works from the corners, lurking along the baseline and darting in at the proper moment. But he also recognizes how to time his dives from above the break. Golden State’s movement-heavy attack, shepherded by Stephen Curry, regularly compromised the defense and afforded Payton beneficial situations.

As both a finisher and connective passer, he thrived there. He’s marvelous functioning off advantages, which he would certainly see alongside Joel Embiid and James Harden.

Part of what helped Payton yield seemingly mythical efficiency as a cutter is his wondrous finishing craft. Per Cleaning The Glass, he shot 81 percent at the rim this year (100th percentile among combo guards). Nearly 80 percent of those makes come via assists, which certainly bolsters his mark, but that doesn’t explain everything.

His bounce, strength and coordination are all significant assets, and empower him to function as a roller. Curry and Jordan Poole’s legit pull-up status invited many traps or aggressive drop coverage to open Payton’s path to the rim.

Someone like Harden may not command the same degree of pick-and-roll attention as Curry, though teams will undoubtedly trap him and Payton would flourish. He’s a good screener and flows well out of them toward the hoop. We saw how Matisse Thybulle could work with Harden in ball-screens. Payton is even better.

Even if he was spoon-fed plenty of reps, 6-foot-3 guards do not luck into an 81 percent clip at the rim. Payton is a great play-finisher on cuts and rolls. The fit in an Embiid- and Harden-centric offense should be apparent.

The 29-year-old guard extends his finishing acumen to transition, where he beams down the floor and injects some flair into the game. He’s a speed demon in the open floor and difficult to keep tabs on when early offense possibilities are marinating at the hands of star ball-handlers. Given how devastating Tyrese Maxey was on the break with Harden, it’s easy to envision Payton finding similar success.

At just 32 percent on 206 career attempts, Payton isn’t much of an outside shooter and defenses act accordingly. He did, however, drill 40 percent of his corner triples this season and is much more willing and effective there than above the break. The long ball is a minor part of his offensive package and virtually any contributions from him beyond the arc are a win.

Payton requires defensive attention to zero in elsewhere for him to thrive offensively. His cutting, rolling and finishing are all dependent on somebody or something else bending the defense. That makes him a bit of a precarious player at times. Philadelphia, just like Golden State, has the defense-bending personnel.

Meanwhile, his own defense is preeminent at the guard position whenever he’s on the hardwood. The Warriors just won a title, with Payton playing a significant part. The likelihood he bolts from The Bay seem miniscule. If he does, though, it would behoove the Sixers to prioritize him on the free agent market.

Anyone who carves out a considerable role on a champion is worth entertaining as a target, let alone someone with Payton’s skill-set, which is an apt fit in Philadelphia.

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