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Pritchard hype train derails Miami’s hope of a comeback win

The young rookie looks calm and ready.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

It’s your ninth game in the NBA, and the hype train has already left the station. Debates about your nickname are raging across social media. Then, in a game where you’ve struggled to score against one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, you come up with the game-winning play with a shade over a second left on the clock.

Welcome to the world of Payton Pritchard. 8 Mile, P-rabbit, Fast PP - whatever you call him, the young rookie has made an enormous impact on the early season Celtics. Pritchard is earning the trust of both coaching staff and teammates alike, evidenced by him still being on the floor for the final play of a close game.

Want further proof? The guard is 8th among rookies in minutes, averaging 22.9 per game with a usage rate of 16.5%.

Against Miami, we saw a different type of impact from Pritchard. While the Oregon product was on the floor, the Celtics looked to him to initiate offense alongside Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The 6’2’ guard lead the line like a veteran, looking calm and ready whenever his number got called.

After forcing a turnover from Pritchard and Grant Williams’s full court pressure, the Celtics find themselves in a favorable offensive position. Boston aligns in a corner set, where Carsen Edwards positions himself on the weak-side slot. Andre Iguodala does an exemplary job of closing out on Pritchard, forcing him to abandon the notion of dropping bombs.

Instead, the 26th pick drives baseline and rises for the contested layup. Most rookies would release the ball while trying to bank it in, but not Pritchard - he spots Robert Williams rotate out of the dunker’s spot to the low-block. Pritchard escapes out of his shooting motion, hitting Williams with the dump-off pass for the easy dunk. You expect plays like these from three and four-year veterans, not someone playing their ninth NBA game.

Seeing Pritchard drive the lane is nothing new; the young guard is third on the Celtics in drives per game with 8.4; he finished with 12 drives against the Heat.

Remember, this is the same Miami team whose inverted zone defense nullified the Celtics’ interior game during the conference finals. Now, just a few months later, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Pritchard combined for a total of 40 drives.

Pritchard’s forays into the tall trees aren’t cosmetic either. Real damage gets done when the latest fan-favorite penetrates, such as his ten passes out of drives against Miami, eight of which produced shots and three of which converted into assists. There’s a real onus on value maximization when the ball’s in Pritchard’s hands.

Beyond penetration and facilitating off the dribble, the young rookie displayed a high IQ on the glass. He finished the Miami game with six rebounds, four of which were offensive with two being tip-ins to close the first and, ahem, fourth quarters.

Damn, Rabbit! Operating as the trailer, Pritchard dawdles to the basket as Semi Ojeleye attacks the lane (it’s nice to see him putting the ball on the floor more). Despite multiple Heat jerseys around the rim, Pritchard times his run flawlessly for the easy put back. There’s something unassuming about a 6’2’’ guard who lacks athleticism operating as the trailer that appears to be working in his favor right now.

Despite his rough night shooting the ball, Pritchard found ways to contribute to the team. Good players are influential when they’re hot or can protect the rim. Great players find a way to impact games when their performance is below par.

Now, Pritchard isn’t great...yet, and he might never be great, but to start the season, he’s been incredibly effective. Cleaning The Glass has the Celtics as +17.6 points per 100 possessions better when Pritchard is on the floor. On defense, the young guard is hounding ball handlers or clogging passing lanes, allowing the Celtics to restrict opponents scoring by -6.4 points per 100. Offensively, the team scores 11.3 points per 100 more on an increased effective field goal percentage.

Sure, these numbers all benefit from a ridiculously small sample size, and with the truncated season in place, rookies could hit the infamous “rookie wall” much quicker than usual. However, Pritchard’s performances have seldom come against the leagues’ also-ran’s. Instead, he’s finding ways to hurt the conference’s crème de la crème and doing so with a smile on his face and swagger to his step.

Right now, the rookie is making all the right impressions and earning his playing time. If he can continue to improve and expand his game--along with learning to stay inbounds--the Celtics rookie has a bright future ahead of him. Game winner or no game-winner, he made his presence felt against Miami, and for a player in just his ninth NBA game, that’s more than you could ask of him.

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