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Sam Mitchell on how Penny Hardaway saved Cameron Payne's NBA career


University of Memphis coach Penny Hardaway has emerged as a serious candidate for the Orlando Magic head coaching job. The Athletic's Shams Charania singled out his player development skills as perhaps the biggest reason why, and Sam Mitchell has the story to back it up.

Mitchell, the NBA Coach of the Year in '07, worked as Penny's assistant in Memphis and saw firsthand how gifted the retired 4x All-Star is in developing young talent. But even he was in awe of what Penny did with Cameron Payne, resurrecting his NBA career after years of wandering around.

Cameron Payne was in our gym every day for two hours, working out with Penny Hardaway. He was out of shape; he was overweight, so I asked Penny, "P, is he gonna get it back?" He said, "we're gonna find out.

Sam Mitchell, Pure Hoops Media

"That first two and a half weeks all Penny did was sat the ball down and run him," Mitchell said. "I mean he ran him into the ground. Penny would do it because he wanted to see if Cameron was gonna come back. Every day at the same time, around 11:30, Cameron walked in the gym, and every day for two and a half weeks, for two hours, Penny ran him to the ground."

It wasn't until weeks later Penny started doing basketball stuff with Payne. Fast forward to today, the upstroke is this -- the 26-year-old point guard is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 10.6 points and 3.6 assists in the Playoffs for the Suns, one game away from making the NBA Finals.

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Payne turned himself from a partially-guaranteed contract guy to one of the best backup point guards in the entire NBA, imposing himself as one of the most surprising breakout players in this year's postseason. But Sam Mitchell isn't surprised by it at all.

I saw this young man hit the bottom, and I saw every day with no fanfare him coming to the gym at the University of Memphis and working with Penny Hardaway. So it does not surprise me -- his attitude is 100% better, his conditioning and the fact he's seizing the moment and his humility; how thankful and grateful he is to Monty and James for giving him this chance.

Sam Mitchell, Pure Hoops Media

Payne will hit free agency this summer, looking to cash in on his improvement as one of the biggest under-the-radar players on the market. There's no doubt teams will be competing for his services, but according to Mitchell, Cameron's best bet is to stay in Phoenix under Chris Paul's mentorship before it's his time to take over the starting point guard spot.

If you look at their future, they bring back Cameron Payne with Chris - now you already got Chris' backup - when Chris slows down or walks away, Cameron Payne is ready to step right in and keep this train rolling. So I saw this with my own eyes every day. He's earned everything that he's getting right now.

Sam Mitchell, Pure Hoops Media

Cameron Payne is one of the NBA's best stories this season. For that reason alone, Penny Hardaway deserves to be the next one. He's the one who made it happen. He deserves the chance to do the same thing with Markelle Fultz. So Orlando, make it happen!

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