Gary Payton
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Gary Payton II went from a G League journeyman to a thorn in the New York Knicks’ side in the blink of an eye.

Danny Small

NEW YORK, NYGary Payton II bears the name of his Hall of Fame father, but he’s still scratching and clawing to make a name for himself in the NBA. On Monday night, the G Leaguer was center stage in the World’s Most Famous Arena and gave the New York Knicks fits on both ends of the floor.

The Washington Wizards signed the point guard to a rest-of-season contract using the hardship exception after a rash of injuries put the team in an uncomfortable position. Payton, 27, took a red-eye flight across the country to join the team for the first time this season. He previously spent time with Washington on a 10-day contract in January.

Although he had been with the team for one day, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks made it clear he was going to need contributions from him against the Knicks. Even the most optimistic of D.C. fans couldn’t predict Payton’s historic night. He finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, and six steals in 34 minutes off the bench.

By the fourth quarter, it wasn’t surprising to see Payton on the floor during crunch time. Bradley Beal (30 points) and Troy Brown Jr. (26 points) carried the scoring load for Washington, but the ubiquitous Payton was the one scooping up loose balls, snatching rebounds, and deflecting passes.

“I had the pleasure of playing with [Payton] last year, so I know he’s a really good defender,” Beal said after the game. “He’s very long, athletic, he may have had 12 to 20 deflections tonight. He just took advantage of his opportunities given and he’s a true talent.

“From playing against him when he was in Milwaukee…He guarded me a lot and he was one of their best defenders. He’s really good at that he’s really capable of being a dog.”

For the time being, Payton will have plenty of opportunities to stake his claim on a rotation spot. With so many players dealing with injuries of varying severity, Payton gives Brooks a long, versatile defender off the bench.

Washington is going to continue to rely heavily on Beal to carry the scoring burden. Don’t believe me? He took 38 shots in his team’s 121-115 win and it wasn’t a case of one guy looking to get his at the expense of his team. Ish Smith was providing some scoring pop alongside Beal while Brown took first option duties on the second unit.

It’s just that Beal is an All-Star playing with a patchwork roster of misfits and Payton is jumping right into the middle of it all. This is his fourth season in the NBA and he’s still trying to establish himself as someone who belongs.

“Defensive player. Toughness. This journey is what it is… Hopefully, he plays well enough to stick and play a long time in this league,” Brooks told reporters in the bowels of MSG. “He was what every coach wants. He has a defensive toughness. He has a presence. He makes winning basketball plays.

“It’s remarkable. He flies in, meets with me for two minutes, meets with our staff, has a breakfast meeting and plays so well. Give him credit.”

The journeyman point guard is in his age-27 season and he won’t have a better opportunity to prove himself than he does now. The Knicks had the pleasure of watching Payton scratch and claw on every play. Conversely, the Knicks admitted that they lacked focus and took the wounded Wizards lightly on Monday. The final score of Monday’s game was close but the mindsets of the two different locker rooms couldn’t have been further apart.

NYY

NYM

NYG

NYJ

NYK

BKN

NYR

NYI

NJD

SJU