N.O. native Elfrid Payton hopes to soar into the first round of NBA draft

It’s a long way to New York City from the corner of Richard Street and Eighth Avenue, location of the Gretna play spot where Elfrid Payton learned to play basketball.

However, Payton has come a long way in more ways than one, with big stops in between. He burst on the national scene the past three years as Louisiana-Lafayette’s point guard, earning an invitation to Thursday’s NBA draft in New York, a strong indication he could be selected in the first round.

“It feels good being in this position,” Payton said. “Hard work pays off. God’s blessing me, so I’m grateful.”

Payton worked out for several teams and watched his name climb up the draft. The Houston Rockets, with the 25th pick, showed strong interest early on. He worked out with the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and most notably the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns, who are said to be the most interested. The Atlanta Hawks, at No. 15, became the most recent team to take a liking to him.

“The workouts went well,” Payton said. “I really don’t know where I’ll go. A lot of teams have given off that vibe that they want to pick me.”

His rise to this spot doesn’t imitate the typical path of draft prospects, many who were stars of youth summer tournaments. Payton rarely played as a member of the Panthers Select AAU team as a pre-teen. The team had point guard Javon Felix, who plays at the University of Texas, and forward Ricardo Gathers. Both became national recruits in high school.

As an eighth- and ninth-grader at Brother Martin, known for its strong program, Payton also didn’t play, and he transferred to Ehret High.

“He always understood the concept of the game, but when I think about him being in this position to be drafted, the thing I’m proudest of is how he’s overcome adversity,” said Payton’s father, Elfrid Sr., a former Grambling football player who had a career in the Canadian Football League.

Mostly, it’s been hard work. And it’s paid off when there was an opportunity.

His senior year at Ehret, Payton, quiet and unassuming, had to take on a bigger role. Ehret reached the 2011 Louisiana High School Athletic Association Class 5A semifinals.

“That was the most remarkable thing about him,” Ehret coach Allen Collins said. “He always was a smart kid, and he became more athletic. With his becoming more athletic, he became more confident.

“When he became a really good player, he did not handle it as if he was ‘the guy.’ But all the other players on the team were handling it like he was ‘the guy.’”

Payton, who also was in an accelerated academic program at Ehret, was selected to the 5A all-state team as a senior. He received one scholarship offer, from Xavier University in New Orleans, a school with an excellent academic reputation, but an NAIA school on the basketball court.

But the state tournament had been held in Lafayette.

“We’d signed a junior-college point guard, and we wanted a freshman to groom behind him for when he left,” UL-Lafayette assistant coach Neil Hardin said. “One of our assistant coaches, Kevin Johnson, had seen him during the season and knew a lot about him.”

By the end of his freshman year, Payton was a starter. There also was a career-changing development. He’d come to the Ragin’ Cajuns at 6-feet-1, 148 pounds and turned 17 in February. Soon, he was 6-3 and growing.

“I had been a point guard since I was a little kid pretty much just because I was so little, I couldn’t play any where else,” he said. “My dad’s 6-1, and some of my uncles are about 6-3, so I wasn’t really surprised.”

He was taller, and the weight-lifting program in college made him more imposing. A good defensive player in high school, he got better at UL-Lafayette, learning to play better with his off, or left, hand.

“He became a better on-the-ball defender and was more focused for the entire game,” Marlin said. “He could attack the rim better; he became a better rebounder.”

Payton said: “My freshman year, we’d lost a bunch of games by three to five points, and that’s only a few possessions, so I dedicated myself to become better on defense.

“With the (extra) height, I could block more shots. ... Offensively, I could see over people. But I think the biggest thing is that it made people look at me differently.”

Like a potential pro prospect. He ended his freshman year in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament with 20 points, nine rebounds and eight assists against North Texas. He was ready for the next test. His sophomore season, the Ragin’ Cajuns lost 63-60 at Michigan State, but he clearly outplayed Spartans point guard Keith Appling.

“That’s when I first knew I could play in the NBA,” Payton said. “I played defense well, and I scored the ball well.”

Last summer, he was in China with a Christian ministry sports outreach group when he got a call from Marlin, who had seen that the USA U19 team was to have tryouts in Prague.

“I called (USA coach) Billy Donovan, and said, ‘I have a guy who is just 19, and he’s played two years of college basketball,’” Marlin said. “‘I think he can help you.’”

USA Basketball’s Sean Ford, part of the selection committee, said: “My first impression was that he can definitely play with the elite players that were there with us. He was high on our list from the first practice as far as is athleticism and his disruptive defense.

“He’s very athletic, he’s very long. And he was one of only two guys on our team who was a sophomore at his age (joining Tennessee power forward Jarnell Stokes.) That was to his benefit.”

Payton started in the backcourt with Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, and the two wreaked havoc defensively against opposing guards, a key to winning the gold medal.

That experienced was another step.

“It did a lot for my confidence,” Payton said. “I always knew I could play on that level, and to finally see, to finally get some recognition for it, it was good for me.”

“There’s no question he came back for his junior year more confident as a player and a leader,” Marlin said.

The impact, Marlin said, could be seen in freshman Shawn Long.

“Shawn Long averaged a double-double last season, and he the leading freshman rebounder (10.4 per game) in the country,” Marlin said. “He was Elfrid’s roommate.”

Continuing to get bigger and stronger at 185 pounds, Payton averaged 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists and had 80 steals. He was named the Lefty Driesell national defensive player of the year.

More important, he led UL-Lafayette to its first NCAA tournament berth since 2005.

“That’s the accomplishment I’m the most proud of,” Payton said. “We put the program on the map.”

And would be only the third player in school history to be a first-round draft pick. Andrew Toney, at No. 8 by Philadelphia in 1981, is the highest Ragin’ Cajuns player chosen.

“Just having him in New York, ready to walk onto that stage, has done a lot for the school and the city of Lafayette, and for basketball in Louisiana,” Marlin said.