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Canaan, Payne on different paths to NBA success

By EDWARD MARLOWE emarlowe@paducahsun.com

T

he Cameron Payne and Isaiah Canaan story: a tale of two former Murray State point guards, a tale of two NBA cities.

And a tale of big aspirations for the future.

All throughout the 2015 season, Racer fans saw two very different paths a player can take through professional sports. Payne, who spent his rookie season as a lottery pick for the Oklahoma City Thunder, absorbed quality time with some of the world's best players in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. Meanwhile Canaan, originally drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2013, was trying to navigate through a 10-72 season with the Philadelphia 76ers - managing serious growing pains and an undefined role as sometimes-starter and sometimes-offensive specialist.

The two teams - and players - have generated headlines for completely different reasons.

Payne was busy with his ever-growing popularity as dance partner and pre-game handshake designer alongside Westbrook, all while the Thunder nearly stormed to an NBA Finals appearance before falling to the Golden State Warriors. He picked up a few playing highlights along the way, but spent the better part of the season just learning from those around him - averaging 5.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg and 1.9 apg in 57 games.

Canaan, already a veteran, became a top sharpshooter on one of the NBA's youngest - and worst - teams. He averaged 11 ppg, shot 36 percent from three, finished fourth in Sixers history for single-season 3s made (176) and was one of only 11 players in the NBA to hit 4-plus 3s in at least 20 games last season. He earned the nickname "Canaanball," but there wasn't much else to write about in Philly.

Even with an up-and-coming frontcourt in former Duke center Jahlil Okafor and former Kentucky Wildcat center Nerlens Noel, the Sixers struggled mightily, and by midseason their general manager - Sam Hinkie, mastermind of "The Process" - was fired.

new starts

After not getting to play in his rookie NBA Summer League due to a broken wrist, Payne made up for lost time this past summer with a promising effort - averaging 18.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.0 apg and just 2.5 turnovers per 30 minutes in four wins for the Thunder.

He led the Orlando-based league in scoring, then had surgery on his right foot to repair a broken fifth metatarsal.

And he's been in the spotlight often since the season ended, visiting a Murray State youth basketball camp and another development camp in Memphis. He was at the ESPYs in Los Angeles, made an appearance at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Sports Awards and stopped by ESPN for spots on two shows - "His and Hers" and "Highly Questionable."

During an interview with radio host Colin Cowherd on Fox Sports, Payne said he knew he was going to get a great experience in his first season.

"I knew I was going to a good team and we have Russell Westbrook â ¦ I knew we were going to make the playoffs and I knew we were going to have a really good season during the regular season, so I just took it as an experience year, learning, trying to pick up a lot of things.

"I made the best out of my situation, and even though I didn't get the amount of time I wanted, I was still one of those guys who was always happy â ¦ that was ready to come in and work and wait on my opportunity."

But for as busy as Payne has been, it's been even busier for his team. Durant signed a two-year deal to join the rival Warriors, sending shockwaves throughout the league in a move that makes the 73-win Western Conference champions even more powerful.

His decision came after the front office chose to deal Ibaka for Orlando Magic sensation Victor Oladipo and 2016 draft pick Domantas Sabonis. Backup guards Dion Waiters and Randy Foye left for new contracts elsewhere in the league, leaving Payne as one of the lone commodities with a considerable chance to take on more minutes next season.

The departure of Durant also pushed Thunder brass to extend Westbrook for three more years, and he and Payne could be together for the span should OKC pick up his option in 2017 and 2018.

At the same time, Canaan was weighing his options around the league.

After the 76ers used their No. 1 overall draft pick to take LSU standout Ben Simmons and made a move for veteran point guard Jerryd Bayless, it was obvious the club was going in a different direction. Canaan said he had opportunities to re-sign with the Sixers and could have rejoined the Houston Rockets (as he now holds residence in Texas), but that he "wanted to go somewhere (he) was wanted."

That team wound up being the Chicago Bulls, which after a disappointing 40-42 season completely rebuilt this past summer.

"It was my first time in free agency, so everything was new to me," he said. "I'm really blessed and looking forward to the opportunity to be able to go up there and play in 'The Windy City' of Chicago - a great basketball city - and under a great head coach in Fred Hoiberg. They have great veterans on the team in Jimmy, Rondo and D-Wade, so I'm really looking forward to getting into the gym with them guys."

Bulls general manager Gar Forman, who signed Canaan to a two-year, $2.2 million deal, noted he signed the former Racer, Rocket and Sixer specifically for his perimeter shooting as it's something the team sorely lacks. The Biloxi, Mississippi, native is relishing the chance not only at individual improvements (he wants to be a better defender and shooter), but also to play alongside some of the greats.

Maybe even stick around in the league.

"You never think about who you'll be teammates with," Canaan said. "You always think about who you'll get a chance to play against. I just wanted to come out of college and be able to let everyone know that I'm supposed to be there (in the NBA). It's been a fun experience, and I'm looking forward to continuing that experience for as long as I can hold out."

Fans will get plenty of chances to see Canaan and Payne on the national stage next season. The Bulls will have 34 nationally televised games on NBATV (9), TNT (9), ESPN (12) and ABC (4). The Thunder have 30, also spread out among NBATV (9), TNT (8), ESPN (10) and ABC (3).

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