With the return of Marcus Smart to the lineup and Kemba Walker looking healthy, the Boston Celtics are finally nearing full strength.
That likely means a return to a smaller role for rookie point guard Payton Pritchard, who has filled in admirably in Smart’s absence. In 21.1 minutes a game, Pritchard is averaging 7.5 points, 2.3 assists and only 1.1 turnovers while shooting 40% from deep.
That smaller role shouldn’t mean he’s worthy of a demotion, though. Even with the struggles of fellow backcourt mate Jeff Teague, a flashy move to add someone who would take away minutes from Pritchard may not be the best use of Boston’s assets at the deadline. What has recently been a position of need for the C’s now turns into an area of strength, and what PP has done proves he’s worthy of a consistent spot in the rotation.
Now, Pritchard is in more of a complimentary spot when he’s on the floor. He played barely 14 minutes against the Brooklyn Nets in the first game with Smart back, settling into the backup point guard territory of anchoring the minutes at the tail end of the first and third quarters while starting the second and fourth.
Those minutes tend to be very similar for the Celtics: four reserves next to Jayson Tatum. Within that time, Pritchard gets to be the guy who runs the show, facilitating at the point and using his balance of off-ball shooting (43.8% on catch-and-shoots) next to Tatum and great pick-and-roll playmaking with Robert Williams.
What’s impressed me most with Pritchard’s rookie campaign has been just how steady he’s been as a creator. A master of fundamentals, Pritchard is able to make some impressive live-dribble snap passes to open teammates in the spread pick-and-roll. Those one-hand flings are completed with his left and his right, and are at exactly the right time:
Many young players can get sped up by ball pressure or miss their passing windows in a league featuring terrific length and seamless positioning on D. Pritchard plays at his own pace, showing the savvy and polish he gained in his time at Oregon to handle any type of defense thrown his way.
Still, immense length and speed are difficult to make live-dribble skip passes against. Pritchard still makes them, aided by a quick transfer from bounce to pass by keeping the ball close to his hip pocket every time he drives it.
Surround him with shooters and one screener and Pritchard makes great reads and kicks on the move:
If the Celtics are looking to add one more piece of depth on their bench, another wing shooter would be wise. Pritchard has proven the right fit with this team to anchor the point off the bench. He shoots it when Tatum needs his touches, and facilitates out of the PNR when Jayson needs a breather.
Pritchard doesn’t just find shooters spotting up in the corners, though. He’s developed a great chemistry with backup 5-man Robert Williams, as our own Adam Taylor recently noted. The tandem they are forming puts a ton of pressure on opposing bigs to not over-commit to Payton’s drives.
If they do, Timelord is able to get some pretty impressive slams:
Part of the reason Timelord gets so open on these is that Pritchard has proven himself a capable finisher inside the lane. He’s crawled up to 51.2% at the basket overall, including 9-of-16 on pick-and-roll finishes.
He’s really good at playing craftily, fusing shot fakes and step-throughs with wrong-foot finishes. For undersized guards who don’t have elite athleticism, all those crafty moves are necessary.
It’s rare to find a rookie so polished in these aspects already:
If there’s one go-to move for Pritchard when he attacks the rim, it’s a nifty one-two step with a great deal of deceleration. He slows himself so much that big man defenders tend to slide past him. Pritchard will then elevate for a layup or floater, using his elbows and shoulders to stab defenders in the core, creating even more room for the shot:
As great as the Pritchard-Timelord combination has been of late, it can be better. There are many possessions where Pritchard’s finishing and Williams’ alley-ooping can’t come to fruition. When surrounded by a dearth of shooting, especially in the corners, opponents will clog the lane and limit the airspace for either to take off.
Contrast the earlier lob clips for Williams, or any of Pritchard’s finishes, with this clip below against the Toronto Raptors. They help so heavily off the two Celtics on the weak-side, Tremont Waters and Aaron Nesmith, that Williams has nowhere to go in the lane:
Nesmith has started to blossom lately. He’s above 35% from deep, including 42.1% since February 1st. And the addition of Smart back to the lineup should add one more consistent threat that defenses respect. If there’s one area for the Celtics to address on their bench though, it’s not at the point. Adding another wing shooter, either via trade or the buyout market, would give the Pritchard-Williams combo more space to operate and bring out the best in who FastPP can be.
The rookie has really impressed this year. He knows who he is and doesn’t make many mistakes. He’s good for one hustle play a game, and is perfectly suited for a 15-minute per game role while the starters rest.
The balancing act of competing for a championship while getting young players minutes is often difficult. If the Celtics are to make a move, Pritchard is the one young guy they better not squeeze from the rotation. He’s proven competent, capable and much steadier than many thought.