Gary Payton II

GP2's NBA journey is picture of perseverance for Warriors guard

NBC Universal, Inc.

SAN FRANCISCO – Not until his 30th trip around the sun did Gary Payton II find an NBA home to hang up his jacket. For five full years, he was spinning in doors that never stopped revolving. Five franchises from two different countries invited him in, and all five escorted him out.

How many rejections would be enough? How many hints could an undrafted player take before reaching his limit? How long was he supposed to keep chasing a dream that kept drifting further and further away?

Maybe his father, who soared from the No. 2 overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft to a Hall-of-Fame career, was right all those years ago. Maybe Gary Payton II didn’t have the fortitude and aptitude to make it in the league.

But Payton was stubborn. Even when cast to the wind, he never stopped believing he was worthy of one of the 450 roster spots available in the NBA.

“I learned from myself just through those five years that I'm mentally stronger than I thought I was,” Payton said in an exclusive "Dubs Talk" interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I really didn't have any expectations for myself just because I started at a late age. I started late and my chances to make it were very slim. So, I wasn't looking at four years, or five years for a contract. I was just trying to get on the roster. That's it. Let me get a couple of minutes here and there and let me just show you what I'm about.”

Payton’s chance came on April 8, 2021. Over five seasons, he had spent more time in the G League (129 games) than the NBA (84). He was with Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate, when he signed a 10-day contract with Golden State, which had been based in Oakland, his father’s hometown. The Warriors had lost six of eight and fallen three games below .500. They were desperate for perimeter defense, and that was Payton's specialty.

The Warriors quickly won four consecutive games, with Payton making an impact. When his first 10-day contract expired, influential veterans Stephen Curry and Draymond Green lobbied management to offer him another 10-day deal. Done. Warriors general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr had seen enough to believe it was not a mirage.

“He was fantastic,” Kerr said after Payton snagged four steals in nine minutes in a win over the Thunder. “My assistant coaches have been telling me when we put him in, we're not going to want to take him out because of his defense. Now I see it. He was all over the place.”

The Warriors were 24-28 before Payton made his debut, and they were 15-5 afterward. He earned a rest-of-the-season contract.

The deficiencies that had stalled Payton’s NBA career – not a big scorer, built like a point guard but not a playmaker, a 6-foot-2 power forward – were rendered irrelevant in Golden State’s system. He was, like Green, a basketball player who defied easy categorization.

“When I had that talk with Steve,” Payton recalls, “he was just like ‘We just want you to be you. You're very intelligent player. You're very different. You know you're not your ordinary 6-2 guard.’

“After I heard that, it just gave me all the confidence in the world. I didn't have to think about messing up or not. Just come out be me. I have great players around me so just let them be great.”

The Warriors were Payton’s dream team. He realized it as they were ravaging the NBA while he was bouncing from the NBA to the G League, from the Rockets to the Bucks to the Lakers to the Trail Blazers to the Wizards to Raptors 905.

“I went home I was just working out every day trying to stay ready, and he get a call from my agent,” Payton said of the weeks between the end of the G League bubble season and his first 10-day contract. “And he said Golden State. The crazy thing about that is couple years before I was like, ‘If I ever get to Golden State, it's a perfect setup.’

“The personnel is perfect for the way I play, and everything's just like . . . it's easy. Steal the ball and give it to [Curry].  That's how my mindset was like for a couple years. When the Warriors started winning championships, I was just like ‘Bro, if I ever get there, we're going to win a championship. No doubt about it, I can help this team win.”

Payton, at age 29, did exactly that. He played well enough during the 2021-22 season that he became a crucial member of the team that won the NBA Finals. His defense was spectacular enough that, finally, other teams noticed.

Portland, which waived Payton in 2018, came calling, offering the free agent a three-year contract worth $26.1 million. The Warriors, despite maintaining interest, decided not to match.

Seven months later, their defense missing its point-of-attack catalyst, the Warriors reached out to the Blazers and reacquired Payton in a trade that sent out James Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 draft.

The Warriors missed Payton as much as he missed them. He’s back in the place he calls “home,” locked in for this season and holding the option for 2024-25.

“Those five years were literally just step after step after step, opportunity after opportunity,” Payton says. “Create opportunity after opportunity, just to show a franchise that I can help a team by being myself. I play defense. I’m not your ordinary guard. I can guard the 5. I can play the dunker.

“I just needed one organization just to give me that freedom, and one coach to give me that freedom like, ‘Just be you.’  And they trust me to be me.”

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