There’s not much to be happy about as a Celtics fan in the world of reactionary takes and immediate gratification or vilification. Quite frankly, the team is underperforming. The more extensive debate is how badly they are underperforming vs. how hard, unenviable circumstances have hit them throughout the season.
Regardless, throughout this trying season, there have been some bright spots, and that rings true even when looking at the Celtics’ current losing streak.
Payton Pritchard has been one of the only constants for the Celtics this year, not as a top performer but as a reliable difference-maker from the bench. Over the last four games, Pritchard’s impact has been growing, culminating in his impressive outburst against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night.
Pritchard has been flirting with a 50/40/90 rookie season for months now, despite a production drop-off that can inevitably be linked to him hitting the infamous rookie wall. Luckily, the rookie guard has scaled that wall and hit the ground running again, averaging 11.1 points, 1.6 assists, and 2.7 rebounds over his last ten games. The shooting splits for that same timespan are encouraging too, with 47.5% from the field, 45.7% from deep, and 93.3% from the line.
While those 10-game span numbers are impressive, they paled in comparison to what the rookie accomplished against the Thunder on Tuesday night. Only twice has Pritchard played with more usage in the NBA, with wins against the Portland Trailblazers (31.5%) and Los Angeles Lakers (27.7%). Furthermore, when Pritchard has the ball in his hands for more than 20% of the time he’s on the floor, the Celtics are 6-3, but the performance against Oklahoma was undoubtedly his most complete.
It all began with the rookie guard’s offense, as he exploded for a career-high 28 points, displaying artistry off the dribble and a nose for attacking the rim.
One of the biggest criticisms of Pritchard coming into the draft was his lack of burst off his first step. For a more diminutive guard, space creation is integral, especially if a pick-and-roll play breaks down - a quick look at Kemba Walker’s step-back from mid-range provides a great example of this.
In the above play, the Tualatin native answered that criticism resoundingly, utilizing his high-level dribbling ability along with some misdirection (hesitation) and a crafty change of pace to generate an open lane to the rim. Pritchard doesn’t always rely on the hesitation dribble either. His crossover is vicious and has caught out opposing guards all season (see the below clip), which lends itself in part to his 60% accuracy at the rim this season.
With the Celtics so reliant on their perimeter play, Pritchard’s ability to penetrate and probe the defense proves invaluable. It’s no coincidence that the 2020 Bob Cousy award winner is assisting 18% of made threes while on the floor - his ability to get into the lane is forcing defensive rotations that the rookie is capitalizing on with kick outs.
Beyond the dribbling and probing, the first-year guard provides a great deal of spacing whenever he steps onto the court. Making 41.8% of your 3.5 attempts per game will ensure a defense respects you. Like his counterpart Kemba Walker, Pritchard is becoming adept at pulling up off screens for quick threes and is finding success with this replication of his All-Star running mate.
How many times has Kemba Walker done this? With Pritchard’s ability to hurt you on the drive, defenses are in a tough spot when he comes off screens. Postgame, Brad Stevens noted that the Thunder were going under every screen on defense, which for someone with Pritchard’s confidence and skill level is a delightful turn of events.
It’s unlikely that Pritchard sees too many defenses dare him to shoot from deep. Still, as he grows into becoming a legitimate three-level scorer, he will find more opportunities to punish any hole a defense leaves open.
Finally, the heart and hustle Pritchard provides off the bench, both in pushing the pace offensively and committing to harassing opposing ball-handlers, will continue to pay dividends by way of floor time. Too often, Pritchard is one of the first players back in transition. Consistently looking to stymy the opposition’s offensive advantage by any means necessary is a trait Brad Stevens loves.
Plays like the one above typify the intensity that Pritchard has brought to the Celtics bench unit. Switching on to the roll man and playing the passing lanes is a high-IQ move from a guard who knows he has no business banging in the paint. Instead, a quick pilfer leads to a transition opportunity for the Celtics.
With so many rookies and sophomores on the Celtics roster, it’s fair to assume a large portion of those players won’t be getting much game time once the playoffs roll around. The teams will shorten their rotations, and coaches will stick to players they trust to play with consistent energy and impact games in ways that elevate their system.
Of all Boston’s youthful roster spots, no one has earned their playoff rotation spot more than Pritchard. The inevitable rookie wall came and fell in quick succession, and the rookie has continued to defy expectations, proving to be one of the better draft picks this season as a result. His presence may not have much impact on how far the Celtics can go in the postseason (if they make it that far), but his absence would be felt on a nightly basis.