It is hard to find a newspaper mention of Elfrid Payton or peruse social media on the topic and not find his name accompanied by varying degrees of the question: Why is he still in the Knicks' starting lineup?
Like a backup quarterback, Immanuel Quickley has found his way into the hearts and minds of the Knicks’ fan base. And with Quickley showing hints of potential as a point guard for a team that has been desperate for a star at that spot, the sentiment is strong and often not kind, wishing for a move to be made.
Payton, for his part, has no interest in the debate.
"I don’t pay attention to none of y’all," Payton said following the Knicks' 91-84 win over Orlando on Monday. "No disrespect. I’m just worried about what’s going on with this team. And rooting for guys. Whoever’s night it may be. Whether it’s Quick’s night, whether it’s Julius’ night, whether it’s RJ’s night, whether it’s Austin’s night. Whoever is rolling and giving us the best chance to win, that’s who we should have on the floor."
In that, Payton is correct, and maybe the smartest part of the 26-year old point guard's skill set is ignoring the noise around him.
In a city renowned for producing point guards, the best one present for the home team at Madison Square Garden has been 74-year-old television analyst Walt Frazier on most nights. The list of point guards who have tried and failed in recent years is long and not exactly reminiscent of the rise of star guards in the NBA game.
Payton was the primary starter last season, with Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina taking some turns. Even before Smith and Ntilikina were sidelined with injuries this season, Quickley entered as the primary backup — the first point guard off the bench opening night. Just 12 minutes into his professional debut, he was sidelined with a hip contusion that kept him out of the next four games.
Since returning, it has been the sort of roller-coaster ride that you would expect from a 21-year-old rookie, particularly one without the benefit of summer league or the usual pre-camp workouts with new teammates. In his last four games, he has averaged 17.5 points — connecting on 50% of his shots, including 45% from beyond the arc — and 4.3 assists. But in the four games prior to that, he averaged 2.5 points and 2.0 assists, connecting on just 2 of 24 shots.
Still, with Payton’s own inconsistent offense and a track record that shows a ceiling for his production, there is a call for coach Tom Thibodeau to swap out the starting lineup. Payton is playing 29 minutes per game, while Quickley is averaging 18. Quickley is the superior outside shooter and with the confidence of a veteran has displayed a floater in the lane that has shredded defenses at times. Defensively, Quickley is a work in progress, although a scout from an opposing team said of Payton, "He shows a lot of intensity, but struggles to stay with his man. Maybe with Tom he will improve that."
"I love both guys," Thibodeau said. "They’re different and bring different things to the team. It gives us great flexibility and we can mix and match. We really haven’t done a lot of that yet because of the things we’ve gone through with our injuries. Hopefully, we can get to that.
"Elfrid, when you look at his defense and size. A lot of these guards, particularly point guards in the NBA today, they’re a load to deal with. Elfrid has a good understanding of how to defend them. He can playmake for us. And when Quickley comes in he gives us a different look. I hope we get them to a point where we can play both of them together also. I love Elfrid’s size and what he brings to the team."