Thunder rookie Cameron Payne has had the opportunity of a lifetime this season: starting his NBA career learning from one of the most dynamic duos ever in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Durant has stressed that routine is everything, telling Payne, “You can shoot 2-for-90, but that doesn’t mean the next day you’ve got to come shoot a million shots. You just do the same thing you’ve been doing every day, because let’s say one night you hit 12-for-12. You’re going to come in and not shoot? This season’s too long to be worried about what happened last game.”
And one of the first pointers from Westbrook was, “Go get an iPad.” Since then, they’ve sat next to each other on plane rides reviewing game film together. And on the practice court, Payne has benefited from fierce battles with the ultra competitive triple-double threat. He’s taught his apprentice game tactics (like time to score in a possession and how many fouls in a situation), and ways to be successful in the post—the next evolution of the rookie’s game.
With the two All-Stars in his ear, Payne developed into the Thunder’s backup point guard in late December. Now, last year’s 14th overall draft pick is waiting for his big moment in the postseason, as Game 1 of the conference semifinals against the Spurs tips off on Saturday night.
This week in Oklahoma City, the NBPA sat down with Payne at his house, over a barbecue dinner with his family, to go behind the scenes of his rookie season and first playoff experience. His conversation with the NBPA is presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
As a rookie being in the playoffs, it’s a crazy experience.
I’m, like, I used to watch this on TV, and now you’re in it. It went from just watching the games to now I’m actually watching a player’s moves, what he’s doing, what the team is running. You go from being just a fan of the NBA to now you’re learning.
In the playoffs, the fans are talking more trash. Our games are sold out every time, but now they’ve got the same shirts and these little fans for people who come. And they’ve got new videos before the game, new music. It’s just a totally different environment. It seems like every possession is so critical and it feels like the game is tied up on every possession. You can be up like 30 points and the fans are into the game.
We’ve also got banners all around the city. And I’m actually on a billboard. It’s crazy. It’s just a picture of me dribbling a ball. The first person I called was my mom. I’m, like, “I’m on a billboard!” I never thought that would happen, ever.
There’s a lot of stuff just happening, a lot of things coming fast. I’ve got thrown in the fire a lot, like just coming to the arena and being told, “You’re playing today.” You’ve got to be locked in at all times. And it’s crazy how much detail we take into account. We get a book to learn everything about the other team. In the regular season, we just get some notes before the game or the day before the game.
When the playoffs come, you’ve also got to know every detail on film because the other team is doing the same thing on you. You’ve got to sit there and watch and learn and listen to everything that the coaches are talking about. That film is one of the biggest things about the playoffs that gets teams over the hump. It’s special edited. You probably watch the same play three or four times, and you watch a player and his tendencies. In my mind, I just feel, What do teams think about me, how do they size up against me?
I’ve learned a lot about film from Russell Westbrook.
He was the first one who told me, “Go get an iPad.” I remember our first road trip to Orlando in October. We get on the plane and Russ is on his iPad. He just played 48 minutes in the win, and he’s watching the entire game. So when I started playing more minutes in late December, I had film for every game. On the plane, I sit right beside Russ, so he’s watching his film and I’m watching mine. Afterward, we just talk about the game.
One of the big things he teaches me through film is 2-for-1 situations with less than a minute left. So if it’s like a minute left, you want to hold for one shot, then the other team has to shoot, and then you can get the ball back for a second shot. Or if we get the ball at like 40 seconds, you want to shoot a quick three, then the other team has to shoot, and then you can get the ball back for a second shot. You don’t think about that in college because of the 35-second shot clock. It’s just the little things that separate you from good and great.
That little stretch between January and February made me a better player, going against Damian Lillard to John Wall, and it’s all because I go against Russ every day. He put the tempo down for me from the beginning, telling me, “You’ve got to come to work every day. It’s work. It’s your job. So if you don’t do your job 100 percent one day, you can be fired the next day.” So I’ve got to come to the gym every day and try to beat Russ, or be better than him.
He’s coming at me like he’s in the game, and it’s very high intensity. He plays mad. He’s a competitor. He wants to win, no matter if it’s a game of goldfish. He’s going to try to beat you in any type of way. I like competing, so it’s fun. He puts me in the post all the time, and he’s exposed that in my game. So I’m starting to work on that. He teaches me a lot while we play as far as like, “You can’t do that. In the NBA, they’re going to call that foul.” Or, “Take your time, let the play develop”—just little things to help me improve my game.
Our connection extends to our handshakes. We’ve been doing them since the first game of the season. Before we run out on the court we do our handshakes, and then right before the game. We start our handshake the same and end the same, but the middle is free reign. It’s something different every game. We talk about it all the time that we’re blessed to be here, so you don’t want to come in the game mad like someone just took the best thing away from you.
Russ and Kevin Durant actually watched me work out for the Thunder last year before the draft. I felt honored for that and I tried to work my tail off. Russ and Kev have told me this season that routine is everything. I try to do the same thing every day with Andre Roberson. We shoot a certain number of threes and then we do one or two defensive drills.
During the game, Kev always says, “Man, that’s over with. Come on. It’s the next play.” He tells me, “You can’t be thinking about what happened in the last play. It’ll mess you up for the next play, and it’s just a trickle-down effect.” I’m also learning how to shoot pull-up threes in transition like Kev. He works on that every day. Overall, he and Russ plant the pillars. They’re the first ones who come in the gym, and I’m right there with them.
As for Billy Donovan, he’s been terrific. He’s just real honest. He’s a big-time encouragement guy, just trying to make me better with him being in his first year and my first year. The other day we were at the airport and we had to walk around somewhere. He was, like, “I’m following you.” I’m, like, “I’m following you.” We’re, like, “We’re both just being rookies right now.” That was one of the little fun moments we had. He’s been helping me along the way big time.
This season, we got hit with a few deaths as part of our Thunder family, but there’s one picture that coach shows us all the time before film sessions. It’s an image that says, “Success.” He tells us, “You’re going to go through hills and valleys to make it.” There’s been a lot of adversity, but it’s brought us closer together. In our huddles, we simply say, “Together on three.” We’ve been saying the same thing since the beginning of training camp.
I had to overcome the rookie wall, working out every day Monday through Sunday. It was December and I’m, like, “Man, we’ve got like four or five months left.” But I got over it and I was cool. Seeing my family at games—including my older brother Tony Jr. who has traveled to most of my road games—I know I’m always good.
They sit behind the bench, probably like nine or 10 rows up. They do finger gestures as far as you need to get to the goal or you need to shoot a midrange jump shot or you need to get to the free throw line. My father, Tony Sr., gave me some hand signals when I was in middle school, and we’ve been doing that ever since. I’m always looking for my family during the game and they’re watching.
I think about what I said on draft night all the time, “There is no ceiling for Cameron Payne.” I just feel like I can add so much stuff to my game. Right now, I’m more of a spot-up shooter and I can make my high-arching floaters, but I want to get stronger to post up, play more physical and finish better by jumping off both feet. My goal is to gain 15 pounds this summer.
Another big plan is hosting my first celebrity weekend at my old high school. It’s for my non-profit foundation, and I’m going to have a basketball camp and bowling event—just some things to give back to my city. I also like to design clothes and I started talking to some people about creating a fashion line based on my motto DWUKD, which stands for “Don’t Wake Up Keep Dreaming.”
I’m blessed to be in this situation I’m in, so I’m going to take advantage of the opportunity any way I can. I’ve got to come to work every day, just knowing I may play tomorrow at any given time. You’ve just got to prepare regardless because you never know what may happen in the game, so I always work my tail off. If I get called, I’ll be ready.