Murray State replaced Isaiah Canaan.
A year ago, it was an unthinkable phrase. Canaan, the star of the team’s 31-2 campaign just a year previous, graduated from Murray State after a senior campaign that saw Canaan lead the OVC in scoring, be named co-OVC player of the year, and wrapped in the summer with Cannan getting drafted early in the second round of the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets.
We thought we wouldn’t see another guard like that at Murray, or possibly even in the conference, for years — if not decades.
Boy were we wrong.
Don’t get me wrong, Cameron Payne isn’t Isaiah Canaan. Cannan was a compact, strong three-point sharpshooter. Payne is a lanky, quick guard with superior ball control. They’re a different style of guard. But there aren’t many Murray State fans pining for the days of old. That’s what Payne has done.
When I say Payne has superior ball control — I’m not just using “superior” lightly. Payne 1.7 assist-to-turnover ratio last year was better than Canaan — in any of his four years with Murray State. Canaan never averaged more than 4.3 assists in a single year. Payne? 5.4. And it sure wasn’t because Payne was passing up shots. Payne took 31% of all of the Racers shots last year — comparable to Canaan’s 32.4% as a senior.
But this comparison shouldn’t just about about Payne to Canaan. It should be about Payne the OVC as a whole.
Being the first ever freshman to win the OVC Player of the Year award is a good place to start.
What’s remarkable is just how unflappable Payne was.
It doesn’t show up in statistics, but there’s never a moment I can remember Payne shying away of. He was the one taking big shots, making big plays, and trying to rally the team from behind. Even in his bad games — and there were few, Payne never seemed timid. If he made a bad pass, he’d respond with a great one. If he was stripped on a drive to the basket — he’d drive again the next play. If he missed open looks — he didn’t pass up the next one.
That last one wasn’t always a positive.
His lack of fear extended into his shooting, where not only would he not pass up open looks — he didn’t always pass up less than open shots as well. It was an often rare reminder that this is a freshman we’re talking about — a player fresh out of high school, who took a team of players more experienced than him on his shoulders.
This year, Payne has added some muscle, and spent some time playing overseas this summer — giving him even more experience. He’s not only more experienced, but has the benefit of being surrounded by many of the same players he had a season ago. Guys he’s familiar with, and know how to play along beside.
Canaan really didn’t explode on the scene in Murray until his junior year, where he thrilled Racer fans for two amazing years. Payne’s already given Murray State one — he’s still go three to go.