When Dennis Schroder was dealt to the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline, you had a feeling Payton Pritchard was going to see an increase in playing time. Derrick White’s arrival put a slight dent in Pritchard’s projected increase, but with his shooting and ball-handling skills, it felt like the second-year guard would have a role moving forwards.
Throughout the season, both Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith have played bit parts in the Celtics rotation, often finding themselves in and out of the rotation on a game-to-game basis. When you’re unsure of your next opportunity, it can be discombobulating, your rhythm is in a funk, and your confidence begins to waver.
But judging by Pritchard’s exploits against the Detroit Pistons, he’s been waiting for this opportunity for a while.
“For me, this whole year has just been about trying to not get down. It’s frustrating to stay with your work and I looked at it as a way I can get better. Between off-days, game days, just keep working hard and then your moment will eventually come.”
That moment came in the fourth quarter of the Celtics' victory over the Pistons, as the second-year guard caught fire, dropping 10 points on four-of-six shooting with two of those shots being clutch three-pointers.
Pritchard is very much a Danny Ainge-type guard; quick, skillful, fantastic shooting range, and most of all, a hard worker. It’s those attributes that helped turn the tide for the Celtics, as the Pistons failed to keep track of Pritchard’s movement. Whether the Oregon native was penetrating off the dribble, cutting off his man, or lifting out of the corners to find shooting space from deep, his movements caused no end of problems for Detroit, and that allowed his teammates to get into their groove as a result.
“It’s definitely a good feeling just to get a win, to contribute like that. For me, in the role I’m in and some of the guys coming off the bench, you’ve gotta find different ways to affect the game. It’s not always going to be with scoring. You gotta get stops. And for me, it’s just finding little ways that I can contribute.”
Ideally, this performance from Pritchard will be the beginning of an increased role for him, but Ime Udoka pointed out that part of the young guard's additional minutes was due to the circumstances the Celtics found themselves in. Derrick White was struggling in what was his poorest performance since joining the team, and Marcus Smart found himself in foul trouble late.
But, when you’re a young player knocking on the door of the rotation, the best thing you can do is seize any opportunity that comes your way, and that’s precisely what Pritchard did.
“He hasn’t got the opportunity as much with Dennis, and now that Dennis is gone it opens up some stuff for him. Derrick wasn’t his best tonight so he got more of a run there, and with Marcus in some foul trouble, it afforded him some more opportunity. We stuck with him, he was playing well, guarding well, and being very aggressive. And so, as I mentioned before, it was nothing he ever did during the season and we’re very confident in him, and the group is looking for him all the time. Had a great game, obviously had a huge impact,” Udoka said of Pritchard’s excellent second half of play.
Towards the end of last season, when Pritchard was wowing everybody with his performances, and proving Ainge right in selecting him with the 26th pick in the draft, there were multiple reports coming out about the rookie's work ethic and competitive spirit.
For a guard who quickly found himself losing out on vital developmental minutes due to a roster crunch, Pritchard has seemingly remained calm and continued to work on his game. We’re seeing him navigate screens cleaner, driving with his head up so he can spot passes, and getting the rock out of his hands at a rate that will make Udoka smile.
It’s those little improvements coupled with performances like the one against the Portland Trail Blazers earlier this season, and then again against the Pistons, that will keep the 6-foot-1 guard at the forefront of the coaching staff's mind.
“Payton got that mentality where it’s like you won’t take no for an answer. He’s never going to give up. Those are the guys I like to be around. Those are the guys whose belief in themself and their confidence in themselves is high, and mine is the same way. And Payton is one of those people that’s never going to give up on himself. He always believes in himself no matter what the situation is. It doesn’t matter if the cards are stacked up against him. Payton is the type of guy to bet on himself. Those are the type of guys I like to roll with,” Jaylen Brown said.
Pritchard still has some way to go before permanently cracking the rotation, mainly due to Udoka’s current reliance on keeping an eight-man rotation, but Pritchard has once again proved that he’s capable of swinging a game from the bench, and is willing to fight on defense.
There are not many undersized guards with endless shooting range and insane bursts of speed in the NBA. That package of skills is a rare commodity to possess, so hopefully, Pritchard’s escapades in saving the Celtics from a second loss to the Pistons will stand him in good stead as we approach the last stretch of the season.