For the second straight season, Payton Pritchard faces an uphill battle to see meaningful minutes on the court. Last year, it was Dennis Schroder’s arrival that served as a roadblock for the sharpshooting guard. This year, Malcolm Brogdon and a settled Derrick White will be obstacles that the Oregon native will have to navigate his way around.
In fairness, a lot of Pritchard’s projected problems will hinge upon whether the Boston Celtics decide their ‘best five’ lineup still consists of two bigs, or if Brogdon’s arrival spells the return to a modernized rotation. Simply put, if the Celtics still envision Al Horford and Robert Williams as a core part of their primary lineup, the minutes will be tough to come by for Pritchard. If only one of those bigs is roaming the court, the path looks a little clearer.
“If you can switch from that double big and your best five-man lineup only has one (big man), all of a sudden guard minutes open up, wing minutes open up. There’s more depth that you can start wading your way through when trying rotations. And, it opens up minutes for guys like Payton Pritchard.
Now, if your best five-man lineup has two big men, that pushes Brogdon back into that kind of, ‘hey, we need to fit you in into the one or the two,’ then we’ve got Derrick White. They need to find minutes for him. Sam Hauser’s gonna get minutes because the guy is a dead eye and he plays at the three and four and that area’s quite thin compared to some of the other positions. Peyton Pritchard seems to be that one dude to me. For the second year running, there’s just almost no direct line forwards,” Adam Taylor said on the October 10 edition of the CelticsPod podcast.
A lot has been said in recent weeks about the value of running a single big lineup, and the versatility it would provide Boston’s primary rotation - while there’s also been a significant amount of reasoning as to why the Celtics should continue with their double-big rotation once Robert Williams returns.
Both arguments are valid and have their pros and cons, but we’re not here to debate that today. However, for Pritchard, there is a significant amount riding on head coach Joe Mazzulla’s decision regarding who fits in Boston’s best five lineups and how often the team runs two bigs together on the court.
“I think back to the playoffs, I thought it was really interesting the way Ime Udoka utilized Payton Pritchard in some of these playoff games where basically he would send Peyton out there for about five-minute stretches in the first half, and then in the second half — end of the third, beginning of the fourth was primarily the moments that Pritchard got, and it would be one stint each half and that was kind of his time.
I wonder if Mazzulla replicates something along those lines because you are going to be able to play Pritchard off of any of these guards that we’re talking about. And the wing spot is a little thin with this team, so I think there’s gonna be a lot of times where Marcus (Smart), (Malcolm) Brogdon, and Derrick White are gonna be asked to play up a bit on the wings. So within context, they’re gonna be, you know, guards or ball handlers that are then playing wings and guarding wings...Which maybe gets Pritchard some extra minutes, but it is gonna be a little bit of a tight squeeze. And, and you can’t help but feel bad. But it is going to be on him to make sure he’s ready when he gets those opportunities because he’s gonna get the green light when he is out there,” Will Weir said.
As a rookie, Pritchard spent 54% of his playing time at the 2, with his primary form of offense being shooting off the catch which accounted for 26.5% of his overall offense that season. Then, last season, under Ime Udoka, Pritchard was exclusively deployed at the 1 but saw his catch-and-shoot attempts rocket to 31.7% of his total offense.
Evidently, Udoka and Brad Stevens saw Pritchard’s position slightly differently but envisioned a similar role for him — an off-ball guard who can stretch the floor with his shot-making ability, create mismatches as an inverted screener (small screening for big) and push the pace when operating as a ball-handler in transition (13.3% of the time last season and 12.7% of the time as a rookie).
“Udoka challenged him last season to become more of an off-ball player in terms of being a small screener on inverted screens, forcing those mismatches, and getting the switches. Being able to cut and get open for catch-and-shoot opportunities because of his shooting ability. And Udoka at the beginning of last season said Pritchard’s a four-point shooter because he can stretch you out to the imaginary four-point line. Yeah, there’s always going to be a role for a guard like that, who can handle the rock, push to pace, and score from anywhere. And that's where a single big ‘best five’ rotation helps. You can envision Malcolm Brogdon playing the three for stretches, maybe not consistently, but sporadically, to allow room for Pritchard to be there in that game-to-game rotation,” Taylor said.
Interestingly, throughout the first three games of preseason, Pritchard has operated as an on-ball guard far more than we’re used to seeing, with his bread-and-butter offense within the rotation coming as a pick-and-roll ball handler (21.6% of the time) followed by attacking off handoffs, isolation, and then catch-and-shoot offense way down the list at 4th.
Every coach has their own idea of how and where players fit into their schemes, especially role players and deep bench guys. Oftentimes, how a coach implements a role player has a direct impact on their ability to be both successful and impactful — see Evan Turner and Brad Stevens as an example. As such, Pritchard’s path might be littered with obstacles right now, but if Mazzulla can put him in position to be successful, and Pritchard makes the most of his opportunities, there could still be a role for him in Boston.
Otherwise, the third-year guard could be a casualty of the Celtics' elite depth, and while that’s not ideal, you can’t hold it against either the front office or the player himself should that outcome come to pass.