Knicks guard Elfrid Payton was influential in the careers of two of Houston’s top players, while they were on their way to this weekend’s NCAA Final Four.
Cougars seniors DeJon Jarreau and Brison Gresham played for the AAU team Payton runs in Louisiana, known as Elfrid Payton Elite.
“I’m super proud,” Payton said before the Knicks’ 99-86 loss to the Mavericks on Friday. “A lot my guys had a great year this year that played on that team. I’m super proud of them. I wish them he best. I know them well. I’m excited for them.”
Houston, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, has reached the Final Four for the first time since the Cougars’ vaunted Phi Slama Jama group made three straight trips under Guy Lewis — without winning it all — from 1982-84.
After ousting Oregon State on Monday, Houston will face No. 1 seed Baylor in one of Saturday’s semifinal matchups, with unbeaten Gonzaga facing No. 11 seed UCLA on the other side of the bracket.
Jarreau is third on the Cougars in scoring (10.8 points per game) and leads in assists (4.4), while Gresham is averaging slightly less than 18 minutes per game off the bench for coach Kelvin Sampson’s team.
Both players are products of Payton’s AAU program, which fields teams in three different age groups. Payton starred at Louisiana-Lafayette, leading the Ragin’ Cajuns to a Sun Belt Conference championship and an automatic bid to the NCCA tournament in 2014 before he was selected 10th overall in the draft by the 76ers later that year.
The Knicks’ starting point guard was slated Friday to play his sixth game since returning from a hamstring injury. Payton described Mavericks superstar guard Luka Doncic — who came in averaging 28.7 points, 8.9 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game — as a “very crafty” player.
“I think he’s very fast, but he’s very deceptive, he knows how to use his body well,” Payton said. “Just try to show him length, try to make his shot as tough as possible. I always say, with players like that it’s not just me. It’s going to be a team thing.
“Definitely, going against a team with essentially five shooters out there definitely puts a strain on the defense, but I trust our preparation, trust the scheme, I think we’ll be able to make it difficult for them.”
Payton hasn’t had an easy time since returning to the lineup March 23 from a hamstring injury, averaging 9.2 points and 2.4 assists over that stretch. He did score 17 points in 28 minutes in Wednesday’s loss at Minnesota, but he committed two costly turnovers in the fourth quarter. Even when Derrick Rose was out of the lineup with an ankle issue, rookie Immanuel Quickley played only 13 minutes and didn’t score.
After the game, Timberwolves rookie Anthony Edwards also called out Payton for a defensive mistake that helped the Timberwolves take the lead in the final minute, leaving Malik Beasley open for the go-ahead 3-pointer with 37 seconds remaining.
“I was about to turn and fade until I saw Payton came and double-[teamed me],” Edwards said. “I was like, ‘He crazy.’ I saw Beas in the slot and I kicked it. And when I kicked it, you can see I just held my hands up. I knew it was good.”
Payton added that he felt “good” health-wise and entered Friday’s game “confident” in the Knicks’ defensive effort entering a key challenge against Doncic and former Knick All-Star Kristaps Porzingis.
“I think it’s a combination of things, guys paying more attention to detail, taking more pride in it,” Payton said. “I think it’s a little bit of coaching schemes, things like that. Like I said, a combination of all those things coming together.”