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Pritchard chasing greatness, expanded NBA role in Vegas

Payton’s focus is evident in his play as he hones in on playmaking skill.

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

For some second-year players, Summer League is an opportunity to show that they belong on an NBA roster. For others, it’s an outlet to show vast improvement and that they’re clearly qualified for a level of play above the G-League.

For Payton Pritchard, the 2021 Summer League experience has been about chasing a goal of improving a certain aspect of his game, as well as tracking down greatness. Drafted in the first round by the Celtics back in November, Pritchard had a solid yet unspectacular rookie campaign. His usage was more as a scorer and 3-point threat: he shot 41.1% from 3 on 3.8 attempts, averaging a mere 1.8 assists.

After Summer League was cancelled in his rookie season, Pritchard is using this year’s summer exhibition to show his playmaking and understanding why that’s the part of his game to increase his value. Perhaps the Celtics saw something in Pritchard’s limited playmaking moments as a rookie, or maybe this is by necessity. With Kemba Walker gone and a short-term void at the point guard spot, Pritchard has used his experience in Summer League to stake his claim for the starting spot Kemba left behind. The ascent isn’t just due to great scoring and a 23-year-old showing more polish than the teenage rookies.

Simply put, Pritchard knows what will take him to greatness:

P-Rabbit has torn up Las Vegas so far. In three games thus far, Pritchard is playing 28.3 minutes a night and averaging 20.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and a whopping 8.7 assists. While Pritchard is second to Sharife Cooper in assists, his turnovers make him the supreme playmaker of Vegas: Pritchard has elevated his creation levels while keeping turnovers to a minimum. Right now, Pritchard has more steals on The Strip (six) than turnovers (five).

Pritchard’s postgame quote is indicative of just what mindset he embraces as a competitor. As a rookie, we saw what Pritchard can do as a spot-up point guard, an ideal fit next to creators like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Gone are the days of the traditional table-setting point guard being the only way to start offense. With two slashing, isolation-driven wings in Boston, flanking them with spot-up shooting was just as important as getting a playmaker at the 1.

With a vacant starting spot, Pritchard isn’t settling for just being a strong shooter. He wants to show he can run an NBA-level offense and be the guy who generates easy shots for his teammates in the moments one of Tatum or Brown rest. The Celtics are (in my view, wisely) building a roster with many shooting specialists or catch-and-shoot guys to surround Tatum and Brown: Aaron Nesmith and Sam Hauser have flashed those traits most effectively in Vegas.

Pritchard has been a juggernaut in transition, and not just with his scoring. His great efforts on the defensive glass allow the Celtics to run the floor, and other guards or wings leak out around him. Pritchard has a propensity to throw passes at the right time. He doesn’t over-dribble into the scoring zone and hits guys as they’re open. Carsen Edwards, among others, has benefitted from the quick advances.

If this can be a consistent part of Payton’s game, we’ll see the Celtics be very effective in the open floor:

Transition offense isn’t just about advancing the ball and hitting ahead before the defense can get set. Sometimes it’s the opposite: putting enough pressure on a recovered defense to shrink them down and capitalize with a pitch-back 3-pointer to an open trailer. Chemistry between Pritchard and Nesmith, two second-year pros clearly more seasoned than any other Celtics in Vegas, has been off the charts in these situations.

When Nesmith isn’t ahead of the play and streaking the wings, he’ll fill in behind Pritchard. The point guard is acutely aware of where his best shooter is, finding ways to weave in and out of the defense and occupy their attention so Nesmith can be open when he arrives in the half-court. Court awareness, vision and even subtle brush screens after he flips the handoff or pitch to Aaron cap off impressive finds by P-Rabbit:

In the half-court, Pritchard plays effectively out of ball screens. His premier shooting ability draws defenses to him, forcing them to be aggressive and hedge or show harder due to that scoring threat. He doesn’t force shots, and because he plays so low to the ground with a tight handle, he can easily transition from drive to pass and let his teammates capitalize on the advantage of him drawing two defenders.

Making the right play is never penalized. What Pritchard does most effectively here is trust his big men and incorporate them. I’m always biased towards a guard who values dump-downs at the rim and lobs to their rolling bigs, as rim attempts are the most efficient shots in the game. Boston’s Vegas roster has been light on NBA-caliber big men, so it would be easy to trust less frequently. Pritchard doesn’t take the excuse. He makes the right play, flashing moments that will be incredibly impactful out of the pick-and-roll next to a guy like Robert Williams.

Assist numbers aren’t always a perfect indicator of passing ability. The red-hot Celtics have been scorching like the August heat in these three wins, especially from 3. Pritchard both contributes to that (insane 57.7% from 3 on over 8 attempts per game) and is the beneficiary of such sniping (8.7 assists). Push the stats aside and there’s film that reveals what Pritchard does being clearly head and shoulders better than other Summer League point guards.

He’s ready not just for an NBA role, but an expanded one.

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