Cameron Payne, Tyus Jones, and Misconceptions Surrounding Upside

Cameron Payne, Tyus Jones, and Misconceptions Surrounding Upside

Last weekend at the NBA Draft Combine Murray State PG Cameron Payne was asked which player ranked ahead of him in the draft should not be, and according to Basketball Insiders he replied:

“Tyus Jones,” Payne said. “Just because he played on a great team. He had a lot of exposure through that team. He didn’t have to carry his team like I did, so I just felt I went through a lot of adversity and he had one of the best big men playing college basketball around him. He wasn’t a focal point.”

Payne isn’t completely right to say that Tyus Jones is ranked ahead of him. DraftExpress has Jones 19th and Payne 20th, and CBS’s Sam Vecenie has Jones 20th and Payne 22nd. In Chad Ford’s most recent top-100 update, Jones is 20th, but Payne is 11th. Whether or not Jones is actually ahead of Payne, any two players of the same position in such a tight range are worth comparing.

Looking at each of their skill-sets at face value it seems Payne has a point. Jones is known as a small, un-athletic point guard who’s a good shooter, and a great passer and leader. Payne is a slightly bigger, slightly more athletic point guard who’s known as an even better shooter, but also a great passer and leader.

From a basic statistical perspective, Payne also looks superior. He had a much higher AST%, lower TOV%, higher STL%, higher BLK%, and higher USG% on identical (.57) TS%. Yet, Tyus Jones ranks ahead of Cameron Payne in 7 of the 8 draft models I’ve seen, and is only 2 spots behind him in the one other. Overall, Tyus has the 6th highest average rank across models while Payne sits at 17th.

The statistical reasons for Tyus’s superiority are mostly age, competition level, and free throw rate. It’s worth taking a further look at these two, and who really is the better prospect.

I’m going to jump into my category by category breakdown soon, but there are a couple key points of context to keep in mind. Payne played as the focal point of a Murray State team with Kenpom’s 213th ranked strength of schedule. Jones, on the other hand, was the 3rd or 4th option on a Duke team that had to endure Kenpom’s 3rd ranked strength of schedule.

The most immediate thing that jumps out to me about Jones and Payne that is captured by draft models, but often overlooked by humans is their respective ages. Payne was a sophomore and Jones was a freshman, but Payne was a very old sophomore, and Jones was a very young freshman. In fact, a 21-month gap exists between the two, so they’re closer to two years apart than one.

With their ages and respective team situations in mind, comparing their stats and games can now be much more beneficial.

Shooting:

Player 3P% 3PA/100 Poss 2PJ% FT% CombinedJ%
 Tyus Jones  37.9 5.7 36.1 88.9 37.0
 Cameron Payne  37.7 11.7 45.6 78.7 41.9

It is fair to say that Payne is the better shooter of the two. He hit at similar efficiency from 3 on a much higher volume and generally much more difficult array of shots, both more off the dribble and more coming off screens. His superior 2PJ% also counts for something, but it’s possible the discrepancy in their percentages is also due to the difference in their efficiency at hitting floaters, not jumpers.

Payne has a quick release that he can get into off of difficult dribble moves and with deep range, neither of which Tyus really flashed this year. However, Tyus looked good when he did take pull-up 3s this year, and his elite FT% gives some hope he could turn into a similar level shooter to Payne.

One important thing about Payne is that while he is a very dangerous shooter because of his ability to hit high degree of difficulty pull-ups, he’s not a truly great shooter. His FT% and 3P% were both good but not great, and his 34.1% from 3 last year speaks to him being more of a good shooter than a great one.

A little edge in comfort pulling up off the bounce makes a huge difference in scaring and altering the way defenses play you. Tyus is a good enough shooter at this stage to pull-up if given space, but what he needs to develop is the ability to shoot after creating space like Payne does. It is unlikely Tyus gets to the comfort level Payne is at in pulling up, but the gap between them is not gaping.

Creating:

Player AST% TOV% FTr HC RimA/40 HC Rim FG%
Tyus Jones 27.5 15.9 .500 1.60 52.8
Cameron Payne 40.0 12.4 .315 1.81 56.9

Here, the context dictates the conversation. Jones and Payne’s AST% and TOV% mean little due to age, strength of schedule, and their roles on their teams. Both are extremely talented distributors, and are going to be great passers at the next level. They each do a great job finding rim-runners in transition, and if no one is open under the rim simply advancing the ball down the court unselfishly.

Payne ran a lot more pick-and-roll this year, but both flashed the ability to execute all the necessary high-level passes; pocket bounces, lobs, no-looks to bigs, and kicking to shooters around the court. In addition, they both can either find the dump off or kick to shooters when driving the lane. I love passing more than almost any other skill, and the top six point guards in this year’s draft are all really great passers, even for point guards.

I don’t think there is a sizable gap between Payne and Jones as passers, but I would give a slight edge to Tyus. The reason being that he has a certain level of instinct and feel for the game that is really elite, and I never quite saw with Payne. It doesn’t show up very often, but Tyus had a couple plays like this one here that I just don’t think many NBA point guards have the vision and instincts to make. 

Having the ability to pass and shoot the ball at a high-level creates space to attack the rim for players like Chris Paul or Stephen Curry. Being able to create space for yourself and beat your man to the rim is also an important skill for any point guard. Payne is a more explosive vertical athlete and Tyus is more known for being “crafty” or “skilled”, but I judge the opposite to be true when it comes to them attacking the basket.

Judging first step is difficult, but I see Payne having a below-average first step while Tyus doesn’t have great speed, but has a very solid ability to accelerate and get a step on defenders. Payne more uses dribble moves to get into the lane, and he has good not great shiftiness to create that separation for himself. Where they both struggle is turning the corner once they get a step on their defender, neither have the long strides to get by or the strength to hold off the defender consistently.

Getting to the rim is definitely a weakness for both of these guys, but very few small point guards actually have it has a strength.  Tyus still has the advantage in this respect. Given all the usual context factors his HC RimA/40 is a fair amount more impressive than Payne’s. One underrated thing Tyus does an absolutely fantastic job of that allows him to get into the lane more often is attack quickly and decisively off closeouts. Not stopping the ball and making quick decisions is an incredibly overlooked skill, and one of the many little things Tyus does that is hard to immediately notice.

One underrated thing Tyus does an absolutely fantastic job of that allows him to get into the lane more often is attack quickly and decisively off closeouts. Not stopping the ball and making quick decisions is an incredibly overlooked skill, and one of the many little things Tyus does that is hard to immediately notice.

Once they get to the rim neither are good finishers, as to be expected for relatively un-athletic and small PG’s. Interestingly enough, they each go about finishing in extremely different ways. Payne looks to avoid defenders, and instead of going at the rim tries to find space for floaters and scoop shots. Tyus meanwhile jumps into and through the body of defenders causing him to initiate contact and often snap his head back in a flop.

Payne’s style of play often looks prettier, but Tyus’s is actually more efficient. Though Payne is very good at hitting them, scoops and floaters are naturally difficult shots and it is hard to be efficient relying on them. Going into defenders means Tyus gets blocked more than most, but also is why he is able to draw fouls at such a high rate. Tyus isn’t necessarily a better finisher than Cam Payne, he just has a more efficient style of approaching finishing at the basket.

Defense:

Player STL% BLK% DRB% DRTG TM RK DBPM TM RK
Tyus Jones 2.7 0.2 9.9 6 5
Cameron Payne 3.6 1.6 10.4 2 2

Here Payne has a clear advantage, even taking into account contextual factors. That being said, Payne isn’t a significantly better defensive prospect than Jones.

Payne has long arms, quick feet, and good timing and instincts for getting steals and even blocks. He does a good job getting under screens and effectively communicates with his teammates on switches, but he’s also overly reliant on going under and often dies when he tries to follow his man over a screen. In that vein, Payne was an often lazy and gambling defender who was somewhat late closing out on his man and could lose track of them on the perimeter.

Jones is in many ways a worse version of Payne on the defensive end. He’s got similarly quick hands and instincts to get steals, but he lacks the ability to alter opponent shots. Like Payne, he does a poor job navigating screens due to his lack of strength, which also hurts him in isolation. Jones also exhibits some of the same bad habits as Payne as he got back cut relatively frequently this year.

Payne is a better defensive prospect than Jones; his length and vertical athleticism shows up in ways that Tyus’s does not, and he has slightly better short area quickness on D. Tyus isn’t that far behind in any one area other than the vertical aspect, and those few blocks here and there won’t be a huge difference maker in the NBA.

Neither of these guys rate as above-average defenders, even for point guards, in my mind. Crucially though, they each have quick enough feet and good enough instincts that neither should be a huge liability on that end either.

Other Stuff:

I already went over the draft model stuff above. It is worth emphasizing that while Cameron Payne looks like a fine prospect by models, Tyus looks like a potentially elite one. It is justifiable to somewhat discount Tyus’s model scores because his lack of athleticism is hard to measure statistically, but even the models that factor in combine performance have him as a mid/late lottery level talent.

In fact, arguments can also be made that Tyus’s team situation at Duke hurt his statistical output. Due to Jahlil Okafor and the other offensive talent around him Tyus sported a minuscule 18.7 USG%. This may have improved his efficiency, but it might have hurt his total output even more. According to Synergy he scored 1.155 PPP in the pick-and-roll, 3rd best in the whole NCAA.

Whenever Tyus was given the chance to consistently run ball-screens he consistently made great decisions, and in many of Duke’s biggest games they just let him go to work at the end. It’s fair to wonder if Duke should’ve focused more on pick-and-roll with him and Okafor, and if his stats might even underrate him.

Cam Payne and Tyus Jones have both suffered from the criticism of lacking upside due to their physical profiles. In a league where Stephen Curry and Chris Paul might’ve been the two most valuable players during the regular season that sentiment seems absolutely ridiculous. There have been many good pieces about this other places on the internet, but equating upside to athleticism, especially for PG’s (Curry, Paul, Nash, Stockton, etc), is just plain wrong.

Payne and Jones aren’t likely to be NBA stars, but if anything, Payne’s ability to hit jumpers off the bounce and Tyus’s elite model performance give them more upside than most prospects in their draft range.

Conclusion:

These two guys are very close as prospects, I only have them 3 spots apart on my big board. However, I am firm in my opinion that I would take Tyus over Payne.

Neither guy has a major edge over the other in any one area, but counter to what most people would say, Tyus’s greater upside is what pushes him over the edge for me.

Because we didn’t get to see him with a larger workload it’s quite possible Tyus’s ability to create in pick-and-roll is being underrated. His elite ability to pass the ball combined with good shooting, a decent first step, and a knack for drawing fouls could make for a great offensive player. If you combine that with only slightly below-average defense Tyus can be a really high-level PG, even with the current depth of the position.

It’s not a given that Tyus will be able to adjust to NBA defenders to where he can still score efficiently, and it is within his range of outcomes that he could be a really atrocious defender. Tyus’s lack of physical tools makes him a risky prospect so I still have him outside of the lottery, but his uniquely high IQ and feel for the game makes him a worthwhile gamble ahead of Payne.

Payne is a very solid prospect. Anyone with his combination of shooting ability and passing vision has a path to being a good offensive player in the NBA. He does have a very high upper bound if he can become a really high-level shooter and a more consistent defender. He also might be a more safe prospect than Tyus because he has a slightly higher floor on the defensive end. However, I am enamored with Tyus’s upside that seemingly only I see, and I have him slightly higher on my big board.

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5 thoughts on “Cameron Payne, Tyus Jones, and Misconceptions Surrounding Upside

  1. Pingback: Facing Reality: Assessing the Draft Using Historical Probabilities of Success | Wingspan Addicts

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