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Warriors guard Gary Payton II’s winding NBA journey continues with a surprise start, staying ready

‘Defense, rebounding, hustle plays. It’s something you got to give. And he’s giving great energy. That’s what they need.’

LOS ANGELES – Former NBA star Gary Payton was in the stands trying to make sense of the Golden State Warriors’ brutal playoff loss on Monday night when he was distracted by the positive words from his son’s head coach.

“Hey, Gary, your son played very well tonight,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before heading back to the visitors locker room at Crypto.com Arena.

Said Payton: “I appreciate that, man.”

Guard Gary Payton II, the son of the Basketball Hall of Famer, was a surprise addition by Kerr to the starting lineup before the Warriors lost 104-101 to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series. The Lakers now own a commanding 3-1 leading in the best-of-seven series and can move on to the Western Conference finals with a win over the Warriors in Game 5 Wednesday in San Francisco. Payton didn’t disappoint in his promotion, finishing with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 23 minutes.

Considering Payton’s journeyman pro basketball career, the elder Payton was proud of his son’s performance when his name was called to start.

“People have to understand that this is a hardworking man,” Payton said of his son to Andscape. “The good player doesn’t always get picked. So, you go through your journey. Don’t give up. Do what you have to do. And my kid was one of those guys. I was tough on him, rough on him and I told him he wasn’t nothing.

“But everyone has to keep looking at that and say, ‘If I keep working and get with the right team and with the right coach that gives me the opportunity to do what I can do, I can do it.’ And now look at him. He went undrafted, went to all the teams in the G League and won a championship and now [is] starting in a major series and being effective.”

Golden State Warriors guard Gary Payton II talks to the media after Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers on May 8 at Chase Center in Los Angeles.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Unlike his teammates Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, who are sons of NBA fathers, getting to the league wasn’t easy for Payton.

Payton played at a prep school in Phoenix and at Salt Lake Community College before going to Oregon State. After going undrafted by the NBA in 2016, he played in the G League for Rio Grande, Wisconsin, South Bay (twice), Capital City and Raptors 905. Payton also jumped around the NBA starting in 2017, playing with the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Washington Wizards and Warriors.

Payton speaks fondly of his challenging road to the NBA.

“That’s where all the fun is,” Payton said. “Grinding, going through stuff. These crazy situations, traveling, G League, going back and forth. Moments you got with guys, build relationship with guys. And you know, that’s just low-key probably the most fun for me. My juco [junior college] and prep school days probably the most [fun] just ’cause you feel … juco like you’re on the cusp, but you can really take this somewhere or you can’t.”

“I personally don’t like the draft. In the last few years, the best player in draft came in the second round or late first. You never know what type of player you gonna get or what you need. So, just keep going. Not getting drafted doesn’t mean you ain’t gonna make it.”

Payton was initially cut by the Warriors before they signed him to be the last player on their 15-player roster before the 2021-22 season. His tenacious defense quickly made him a fixture in the Warriors’ rotation last season and he had a guaranteed contract for the first time in his NBA career when his one year, $1.94 million contract became guaranteed on Jan. 6, 2022. Payton averaged 7.1 points and 3.5 rebounds last season for the Warriors and won his first NBA championship.

As a 13-year-old, Payton was in attendance when his father won his lone NBA championship with the Miami Heat in 2006. After the Warriors defeated the Boston Celtics in six games during the 2022 NBA Finals in Boston, an emotional Payton needed the comfort of the bench when he celebrated the title with his father, mother Monique, and other family members. He believed that he could finally exhale.

“Right after the buzzer [after] Game 6, I just sat down on the bench,” Payton said. “I was just relieved. It’s done. I was put in the situation and we came out on top. sat there with my mom. Me and my mom had a moment and then everybody started to find me, and my family found me on the bench. We all had a moment on the bench so I was, I was just like relaxing. Yeah, I was tired, exhausted.”

Payton prioritized re-signing with the Warriors last offseason, but also yearned to land a lucrative long-term contract for the first time in his NBA career.

The Warriors made Payton a low offer in free agency last summer due to luxury tax concerns, sources told Andscape. After being courted by NBA All-Star and friend Damian Lillard, Payton signed a three-year, $26.1 million deal with the Portland Trail Blazers, turning down a more lucrative offer from the Toronto Raptors.

“It was just business. They couldn’t get it done,” Payton said about the Warriors. “I gave them the opportunity to get it done first. They couldn’t get done. I just gotta do what I’ll put the time in for. So that was it. This is probably like my only one [long-term deal]. You know me, I’m like, ‘Yeah. I ain’t got probably one or two of these left, so I got to take it …’

“I talked to Dame. He said he was trying to put something together and I was gonna help him win. I [expletive] with Dame. So, it was like, ‘If you need me, I got you.’ ”

Portland Trail Blazers guard Gary Payton II plays in the first half against the Atlanta Hawks at Moda Center on Jan. 30 in Portland, Oregon.

Soobum Im/Getty Images

To his surprise, Payton wasn’t able to help Lillard and the Blazers for too long. He heard whispers in December 2022 that the Warriors had interest in bringing him back because they missed his defense, intensity and athleticism. Even so, at the trade deadline on Feb. 9, he was stunned that the Warriors re-acquired him from Portland in a four-team trade that also included sending center James Wiseman to the Detroit Pistons.

The trade, however, was in jeopardy because Payton failed the Warriors’ team physical due to a core muscle injury that was expected to keep him out two to three months. Golden State ultimately decided to keep the defensive standout.

“I don’t think they would’ve brought me back if they wasn’t going keep me,” Payton said. “It was just a little hill. But I feel like last year showed them last season if fully healthy can happen …

“There was no odd feeling when I came. It was just like normal. Like I woke up and I’m back coming to work and I just come back to the same locker room. Donte [DiVincenzo] had my old locker. But, yeah, everything goes back to the same.”

Payton played his first game with the Warriors this season on March 26. He said he feels much healthier now and is doing daily maintenance for his injury.

“I just didn’t feel like myself before,” Payton said. “I know my body and I know when I feel like me … I was just sick of [the injury]. I was just like, ‘Gimme something for the pain and, yeah, [I] got to it.’ ”

Payton averaged 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds in seven regular-season games with the Warriors this season, and he didn’t play more than 15 minutes in the first three playoff games against the Lakers. Looking for some defense and energy, Kerr told Payton on Monday afternoon that he would make his first start of the postseason, putting the Warriors into a smaller starting lineup.

“It didn’t make no difference,” Payton, 30, said of starting. “I play the same way, so it didn’t matter to me.”

While known for his defense, Payton’s offense gave the Warriors the boost in the third quarter. Seven quick points by Payton, finalized by a corner 3-pointer, gave Golden State a 66-59 lead with 7:31 left in the third quarter. Warriors guard Stephen Curry followed with a layup with 7:07 remaining to give the reigning champs a 68-59 lead in the third. An assist by Payton to teammate Andrew Wiggins gave the Warriors their first double-digit lead 71-61 with 6:28 left in the third.

“All I was doing was running. They were losing me in transition. They passed around, nobody was there [defending] me and Klay [Thompson] just found me … They found me in the corner. Practice shot,” Payton said.

Gary Payton, a nine-time NBA All-Star, was pleased with how his son played when given the starting nod.

“With the rotation, you have to put the right players in at the right time,” Payton said. “If it’s going to get you energy, get the energy. He gave them energy tonight. Easy baskets. They have to play that way all the time and stop shooting all the jump shots. That is where the foul differential is coming from. The referees are saying, ‘Y’all shooting all them 3s so we can’t call it.’

“But with him, he gives you everything. Defense, rebounding, hustle plays. It’s something you got to give. And he’s giving great energy. That’s what they need.”

Payton exited for good with 9:49 remaining in the fourth quarter and the game tied 94-94. Lakers reserve guard Lonnie Walker scored 15 points in the fourth quarter, including 12 with Payton on the bench.

“[Payton] gave us a lot. He went from kind of going out of the rotation to starting to playing 23 minutes,” Curry said. “We obviously got a little smaller, but we got faster. He got us some good looks. Pick-and-rolls. Obviously, defensively we know what he can do. Offensively, he was cutting, making plays and finishing at the rim. He made a huge 3 in the second half. It’s a testament on how roles can change really quickly with a team, and just trying to stay ready and be ready for your moment.”

The moment is now for Payton and the Warriors. In the Kerr era since the 2015 NBA postseason, the Warriors are 7-2 when facing elimination and 6-0 against a Western Conference opponent. Payton believes the Warriors will win three-straight to ultimately beat LeBron James and the Lakers.

“Win the next one. Win the one after that,” Payton said. “What is this Game 4? We have to win three more. We lost Game 4, but we have to buck up and [win] again.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.