The point guard position has been a position of contention for the Boston Celtics since Isaiah Thomas got traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017. Since then, nothing has worked out for the Celtics. From Kyrie Irving’s ill-fated spell in green to Kemba Walker’s injury-riddled nightmare, the position has become a poisoned chalice. Oh, and we didn’t even mention Terry Rozier’s kamikaze exit before proving himself as one of the better guards in the East with the Charlotte Hornets.
Now, in the light of Walker’s trade to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Celtics are on the lookout for their next guard piece. Perhaps things will be different this time, primarily because all signs are currently pointing to Marcus Smart taking the mantle of starting guard, meaning the need for a star ball handler isn’t as prominent as it once was.
Maybe, the need for another guard isn’t even there at all. The current rotation projects to have Smart starting and second-year guard Payton Pritchard leading the second unit on a nightly basis. The bigger question isn’t what guard the Celtics should pursue this summer; it’s if Pritchard can step into a more prominent role next season.
To answer this question, we need to look at P-Rabbit’s rookie season, along with what type of role he occupied during the latter years of his collegiate season.
When looking at Pritchard’s rookie year, the first thing to stand out is how often he played at the two, with 54% of his total minutes coming at that position. Last season’s guard rotation consisted of Kemba Walker, Jeff Teague, Marcus Smart, and Pritchard, so, understandably, the rookie frequently found himself playing alongside one of his veteran counterparts. Factor in the rookie’s seemingly limitless range from deep, and his floor spacing ability afforded former head coach Brad Steven’s with the luxury of finding him regular minutes.
Yet, one of Pritchard’s greatest assets is his ball-handling skills and willingness to run at defenses, so by using him prominently as a floor spacer, you’re actually hindering his impact on that game. Here’s where the encouraging part comes into play: despite operating as an off-ball guard for a large portion of the season, Pritchard still ended the year averaging five drives per game.
When driving, the Oregon product dished the ball 52% of the time and ended the year with an 11% assist rate via his driving efforts. With a usage rate of just 16.6%, the fact that Pritchard managed to sustain five ventures into the tall trees is an encouraging sign. Shockingly, despite operating with a lower usage rate than he had in college, Pritchard’s drive percentage was the highest of his young career.
Here's a list of Pritchard's drive percentage (how often he drove when in possession) over the last 4 years.— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) July 2, 2021
Crazy how he drove more in the NBA than he did in College despite his lower usage rate
It’s worth noting that the college season is far shorter than an NBA season, and the increase in games played will skew these types of percentages, yet there are still signs of a shot creator.
This play is from one of Pritchard’s final games at Oregon, but the way the defense plays him paints a picture of a thousand words. The defense knows that the 6’2” guard is a threat to pull up from anywhere, so they can’t afford to sag off him too much, meaning that when Pritchard puts the ball on the floor, he can navigate driving lanes far easier once he gets his man on his hip.
The apparent question coming into the draft was if Pritchard could punish NBA defenses, which are far more athletic, in the same way and it was something he proved capable of throughout the last season.
Another question mark that Pritchard had hanging over his head, and has since answered, was his ability to operate as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. There were concerns that 8-Mile’s lack of burst on his first step would hinder his ability to beat hedges or punish bigs playing up to touch. Despite those concerns, Pritchard seized every moment and never let it go. You could say, “he only had one shot.”
When operating in a pick-and-roll situation, the young guard displayed a versatile approach to his offensive creation. In the below play, you can see Pritchard run a pick-and-roll, drag the defense with him, and then hit Luke Kornet for a wide open three-point attempt.
But what about when running the PnR with roll threats?
We saw Pritchard drop nifty little pocket passes like the one above, along with developing a telepathic connection with Robert Williams that resulted in numerous lob plays. Both of the above plays highlight different avenues Pritchard used to create for others in PnR scenarios, but what about scoring for himself?
Early in the season, the concerns about the rookie being able to punish secondary defenders (dropping bigs or a defender playing up to touch) appeared to be fair. Pritchard consistently bailed out of drives before deferring or resetting a play. However, we began to see moments like the one above as the season wore on.
The difference between what we saw early in the season and what’s displayed in this clip is that Pritchard learned how to utilize his crafty dribble and change of pace to freeze more prominent defenders before exploding towards the rim or pulling up for a mid-range jumper.
When factoring Pritchard’s floor spacing and off-ball ability, it makes sense to envision him being provided every opportunity to cement a role as “first guard off the bench” this coming season. If Ime Udoke follows Steven’s ideal of running either Tatum or Brown with the second unit, having a player like Pritchard who can both create and supplement offensive maneuvers will prove incredibly valuable to the team’s chances of success.
Sure, at 6’2’’ the guard’s size will always ensure he’s a potential target on defense, yet he displayed a fight and grit that lessened the blow of teams trying to hunt him. Pritchard’s competitive nature and controlled approach to the game make him a great candidate for an increased role moving forwards.
It may not be the sexy acquisition everybody wants after parting with yet another All-Star guard, but it could prove to be a cost-efficient and impactful decision should Stevens wish to spend his limited resources on other areas of the roster.