Not all rookies are created equal.
Payton Pritchard, the Boston Celtics 26th pick in last year’s draft, was a bit of a surprise selection. Pritchard, who affectionately became known as ‘P-Rabbit’ during the season, turned 23 in January and was the oldest player selected in the first round. The reason for that was simple: the C’s entered a pivotal season with need for immediate contributions at the point guard spot, as Kemba Walker embarked on a season without back-to-backs after missing the start of the year recovering from a knee procedure.
The immediate impact from Pritchard was felt in the form of consistent, sturdy minutes. He shot over 40% from 3-point range, logged an average of 19 minutes a game and had more than a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. In a vacuum, those are impressive numbers for a rookie picked in the final slots of the first round.
Making an immediate impact was always in the cards for Pritchard. What’s always been the question was the long-term outlook. With his athletic traits, seasoned college career and already heady game, how much seasoning would be added to maximize what he gives a team? That’s a fancy way of asking a simple question: will he continue to get better?
In reviewing Pritchard’s rookie campaign, the two distinct perspectives are vital. On one hand, he had a really strong season by rookie standards and proved that, at the very least, he isn’t a bust. But he could also be the same version of himself for each of the next three years, and that’s a troubling thought for a team starting to thin out on future first-round picks.
When Pritchard came into the NBA, he did so after a prolific scoring career at Oregon. He conducted a hypercharged offense, distributed the rock when necessary and shot the ball at a really high level. He was also great as a pick-and-roll creator with all the tricks of the trade already up his sleeve: snaking, hostage dribbles and unorthodox finishes.
Strangely enough, Pritchard struggled most from a statistical standpoint in the pick-and-roll. He only shot 39.4% out of ball screens, a low mark in comparison to league handlers. His dribble jumper wasn’t on point, making a lousy 28.9% of his PNR pull-up jumpers, according to Synergy. An instant uptick in shooting percentage in the future — something he’s proven capable of when at college — would be improvement enough to merit a slightly larger role.
Where Pritchard was on the money all season was in his catch-and-shoot game. Spot him up and P-Rabbit could make defenses pay. He made 45.5% of his spot-up jumpers in the half-court on 154 attempts. That’s good for 7th in the NBA among players with at least 150 attempts, ahead of the likes of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Stephen Curry and Duncan Robinson.
Placing a point guard next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is as much about what is accomplished off-ball as it is on-ball. Nothing about this season’s shooting performance appears fluky from Pritchard. He made 42.5% of his catch-and-shoot jumpers as a senior at Oregon and 43.3% as a sophomore. If Ime Udoka runs his rotations in the same manner Brad Stevens did and allows Tatum to run wild with the second unit, a shooting-minded point guard like Pritchard has a permanent role with the team.
Other than simply making shots out of the pick-and-roll, where can Pritchard continue to get better?
A lot of that comes on the defensive end. Call it bad luck, but the guys he was guarding shot 51.9% on catch-and-shoot jumpers this year, an astoundingly high number. To me, the biggest area for Pritchard is being perfect on his defensive rotations. He’s smart and knows where to go; there isn’t a lack of awareness that prevents him from being playable.
He also has his physical limitations as a short non-vertical athlete lacking unbelievable length. One misstep, poor angle for a split-second or late reaction means he’s toast. It’s not necessarily the lack of ability that Pritchard has to be positionally sound, it’s that he doesn’t quite have the prowess to cover up for mistakes his teammates make.
Here are a few examples that the coach inside me cannot help but point out. They may seem small, but in an NBA where skill is at an all-time high, they matter:
Looking back on the season, P-Rabbit also alluded to the grind that can occur during one’s first professional season. It’s a lot longer, more intense and mentally taxing than most understand, and there’s no way to prepare for it other than simply going through it.
As Pritchard looks to become a more natural and established part of the team’s core, he’ll need to be ready for any role that gets thrown his way. The C’s enter the season without an established starting-caliber point guard (before you get up in arms, Marcus Smart is a combo guard and not a pure point). That may mean an expanded role for Pritchard, more minutes and more opportunity with the ball in his hands.
It could also mean much of the same: a stop-start season with minutes varying based on health, who is in front of him, matchups and more. Skills additions get him ready for a larger role, mental training gets him ready for the inconsistent one.
All thins considered, t was a solid showing in Year One from Pritchard. He’s a heady rookie who played important minutes when the C’s needed him and drilled shots consistently. There is another step to take in terms of impact, especially with his scoring off pick-and-rolls. But don’t expect him to come in next summer having reinvented the wheel, a la Jaylen Brown. Pritchard knows who he is, has a decent amount of polish and maximizes what he can give. That’s more than can be said for most rookies out there.