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Payton Pritchard shines in NBA debut

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The #26 pick out of Oregon looked like a steal in his first game.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

There are qualifiers for sure--it’s the first preseason game and everybody’s a little rusty--but Payton Pritchard can play. After being anointed the “young guy that’s come into training camp and impressed early” by Marcus Smart and confirmed by Brad Stevens, the #26 pick was a bright spot in the Celtics 108-99 loss in their first preseason game in Philadelphia.

Pritchard was nursing a recently dislocated finger, but neither that nor the 76ers defense could stop him from scoring 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting and dishing out two assists.

“Trying to get into the flow of things. Obviously, it’s a different game than at the college level,” Pritchard said of his springboard performance. “This is my first time. I had a little bit of jitters. I was really just trying to get a feel out there.”

With Kemba Walker out until at least January after a stem cell injection in his knee, Boston’s point guard depth will be challenged to start the 2020-2021 season. After not playing competitive basketball for nearly nine months, Pritchard wasn’t exactly expected to make a large impact on the rotation, but his training camp performance and a strong first impression against NBA-level competition could make him a contributor when Boston opens the season in a week.

The ball handlers ahead of him in the point guard pecking order are established veterans who Pritchard recognizes as key role models in his development. On Tuesday night, Marcus Smart got the starting nod and Pritchard acknowledged just how important Smart’s presence is on the floor.

“It’s an example of how we should play and how you win games. You need guys like that,” Pritchard said of the team’s heart and soul. “Marcus Smart, he’s a dog and he does what it takes. He’s a perfect leader for that.”

Pritchard stands at 6’2”. He’s not exactly the most menacing physical presence on the floor, but his activity, even on this defensive end, does remind Celtics fans of Smart and his relentless play. To wit, the 2020 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award winner won The Tommy Award in his first game.

Pritchard had two of Boston’s nineteen ugly turnovers on the night, but he, like Stevens, recognizes how much work is ahead of him and the team. “Offensively, it’s just going to take a little time for guys before it becomes second nature when they call a play and get into it. We’ve only been practicing for a week, so our flow is getting better and better.”

But like with Smart, Pritchard knows he can learn from having another veteran like eleven-year pro Jeff Teague. “Jeff knows how to run the team. Obviously, he’s been doing this a long time and has been really successful at it. He’s a perfect person for me to follow and learn things from,” Pritchard said.

After spending four years at the University of Oregon, Pritchard joins the Celtics as a more finished product than many draftees. In a CelticsBlog Film Room earlier this month, Coach Spins highlighted Pritchard’s ability as a pick-and-roll ball handler and showed he uses his threat as a shooter to get into the paint to finish around the rim or make plays for his teammates. That was on full display against Philly:

When Danny Ainge selected Pritchard in the first round, fans and rival executives alike were confused by the selection. But as owner Wyc Grousbeck noted to The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach, Ainge could hold back his enthusiasm:

It reminds me of when we drafted [Rajon] Rondo and I encouraged him to trade up and get Rondo, because I’d never heard him so excited about a prospect. I’m not saying Payton Pritchard is Rondo, but Danny had that level of excitement about seeing this kid on the team. He’s got a fire inside, he’s ultra-competitive.

If approval from Ainge, Smart, and Stevens and now an strong debut are any indication, Payton Pritchard is the real deal.