Elfrid Payton
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Knicks’ point guard position is braced for a strong competition on the heels of Elfrid Payton’s arrival.

There are a lot of questions regarding the New York Knicks, as far as rotation and roles between the new and old faces. But New York may finally have a competition for point guard that’s worth watching.

I say all of this well aware that I’m established as a longtime Emmanuel Mudiay supporter. But he’s onto better things, and so are the Knicks (I hope).

A look at newly signed point guard Elfrid Payton and why the fight for point guard in New York has never been so well matched.

The Newcomer

Drafted back in 2015, Payton’s yet to find a long-term home in the NBA.

This is disappointing to me because the need for a point guard with his IQ could never be higher for the league.

Payton’s yet to post fewer than six assists per game in any of his six NBA seasons, per Basketball-Reference. He’s a bonafide floor general, and he’s going to work wonders for New York’s second unit—which averaged a league-worst 20.1 assists per game last year.

Payton’s not the rim-running, monster athlete we’ve seen in former-MVP Russell Westbrook. But they have some things in common.

Last season with the New Orleans Pelicans, Payton recorded a five-game streak in which he tallied a triple-double. These kinds of performances have almost lost their glimmer or shine since Westbrook has now recorded three straight seasons averaging one.

But please keep in mind, only 35 players had such a game last year. That’s not even 15% of the league. And only five of those guys recorded such a game with 16-plus assists.

But to record a triple-double five games straight? That’ll put you in some elite company.

That puts Payton up there with Wilt Chamberlain, Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, and Michael Jordan as the only players to do such in history.

He’s an elite passer—and a potential top-15 point guard, even with his limited offense.

It’s hard to ignore Payton after you do some deep numbers diving and find out how he compares to other point guards this decade.

Per Basketball-Reference, just three players under the age of 30 since 2010 have recorded five consecutive seasons of six-plus assists and fewer than three turnovers per game: Chris Paul (2010-2015), Kyle Lowry (2010-2015), and Elfrid Payton (2014-2019).

So if you’re keeping count at home that’s: an NBA champion, and one of the greatest point guards of all time. Not too bad for the 25-year old.

The Competition

It started in an abrupt January trade when the Knicks sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks for draft picks, cap space, and of course, Dennis Smith Jr.

He arrived in New York to a warm welcome by the fanbase, as he was the player most fans had longed for in that 2017 NBA Draft.

Ex-president of operations opted to take FIBA star Frank Ntilikina over Smith with the eighth overall pick. Little did fans know they would wait only two years to see their prized point guard touch down in Madison Square Garden.

Smith’s inaugural season in New York was arguably the most exciting basketball fans had seen to date. He played 53 games and posted a strong line behind 14.7 points, 5.4 assists, and 1.3 steals per game.

And a vicious dunk clinic that started in game one.

Smith has all the tools to fill the John Wall comparisons he received coming out of college. He’s aggressive in transition with a good eye for the floor, and lord is he bouncy.

Beyond Smith, Knicks fans still won’t let you forget about the handsome gentleman drafted just before him, Frank Ntilikina.

Currently, the French point guard is coming off a solid run with his national team in the FIBA World Cup. And honestly? He exceeded even the biased expectation of Knicks fans.

(But if you’re interested in a deep dive on Ntilikina’s performance in the World Cup, ESNY’s Danny Small has got you covered.)

A proficient defender, Ntilikina has yet to develop any kind of reliable offense. His time with the Knicks has been a roller coaster. He hasn’t really had a legitimate chance to show what he can do in a starting role.

Regardless I, and the greater majority of Knicks Twitter would be remiss without reminding you weekly he’s got the tools to be a legitimate rotation piece on a good team.

Ntilikina’s length and eye for the ball have been put on display against some of the top offensive guards in the league, and he’s stepped up to the challenge each and every time.

And that is what Elfrid Payton is up against. Or should I say, who’s up against Payton heading into the 2019-20 campaign? He’s the odd man out, but could very well work himself into starting point guard within months.

New York Knicks

Payton’s Advantages

Clearly, Payton is the best passer New York’s seen at point guard in some time. It’s hard to pinpoint the last passer of his caliber to don the blue and orange.

But he’s got more advantages over the Knicks current point guard rotation. His age and experience in different systems—Orlando, Phoenix, and New Orleans—will come in handy. Payton’s been around, which is more than you can say for any of the other point guards.

And he’s played with all kinds of talent: Devin Booker, Aaron Gordon, Jrue Holiday, and current teammate Julius Randle, to name a few. Experience is invaluable when it comes to a team starting fresh like the Knicks

It’s what makes Payton and the rest of the summer signings worthwhile, even if they’re not Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving.

This club is going to have to get down and dirty to earn their wins before a star joins them. And Payton is the kind of guy who can help them get there.

Then there’s his current deal, which is for two-years, $16 million. That is a damn good deal for what Payton brings to the table. Especially if he captures the starting job before the end of the season.

Defensively, Payton’s probably just a smidge better than Smith. But certainly not better than Ntilikina. The truth of the matter is however, he doesn’t have to be when he’s such a capable passer and posting a top-10 assist ratio (33%).

One argument I’ll offer up on the guard is that he missed nearly half the season with a laundry list of injuries last year. Payton missed games due to two different finger injuries, a wrist injury, and an ankle sprain in his lone season with New Orleans. If he can’t stay healthy, then Smith has a clear path to becoming the starter.


Elfrid Payton’s ability as a passer and floor general make him worthy competition for New York’s starting point guard.

Words you couldn’t have uttered in any of the last, hell, 10 seasons? Maybe longer?

It will be interesting to see how his play impacts the futures of Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina, and who earns the rights to lead the starting five. Stay tuned Knicks fans, there are more storylines than one to keep an eye on heading into next season.

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