Payton Pritchard’s Oregon Ducks may not have made the NCAA Tournament — they face the Texas A&M Aggies in the second round of the NIT today, for what it’s worth — but he looks no less comfortable on said tournament’s opening weekend. There’s just one difference: this March, he’s playing for the Boston Celtics.
His line of 14 points, five rebounds, and eight assists against the Kings arguably amounted to a season-best effort, save a few mid-February outings as the Celtics struggled. He played more than 20 minutes for just the ninth time this season, and only the third time since Dec. 29. Needless to say, Pritchard made the most of his time.
The sophomore played what was practically a perfect game: 100 percent from three (four-for-four), 100 percent from the field (five-for-five), no turnovers, and no fouls. He was a whopping plus-31 for the game, trailing only Jayson Tatum (plus-40) in plus/minus. The Celtics have been able to rely more on Pritchard due to the fact that, well, he’s been reliable, particularly as a shooter. Lately, he’s been letting it fly with confidence and composure. Last night, he looked like a guy who doesn’t love that his minutes have dropped from 19 per game last season to 13 per game this season, and desperately wants those six minutes of floor time back.
“People want to look at stats and numbers, but at the beginning of the year, I’m playing sometimes at the very end of games and different minutes,” Pritchard said following the win. “I just come in, be ready, knock down shots, play hard defense, make plays, be a winning player. For me, once that trade deadline happened, that was my mindset to come in and compete and keep earning more trust from the coaching staff.”
He’s done exactly that, particularly as a shooter. Pritchard is now shooting 38 percent from deep this season and 44.7 percent since the All-Star break (1.9 of 4.3 attempts per game). No longer is Pritchard being treated as a maybe-minutes bench player, but a dependable option late in close games when the Celtics stars are being hounded. Whereas Derrick White has somewhat struggled offensively since arriving from San Antonio at the trade deadline, shooting just 22 percent from three as a Celtic, Pritchard has proven himself capable of fitting in with and around Boston’s starters when necessary. His presence from beyond the arc creates spacing nightmares for opposing defenses; it’s a dream for his own squad.
“I mean, it’s big having a guy that can space the floor and knock down those shots,” Tatum said of Pritchard postgame. “He just makes us more dynamic, and it builds confidence. There’s nothing better than seeing the ball go through the net, especially as a shooter. So happy for him, and [hope he] keeps it going.”
“It’s huge,” Ime Udoka added, speaking on Pritchard’s shooting. “He’s obviously one of our best shooters. The trick for him was to learn to play off the ball more and understand that we have Marcus, Derrick, Jayson, Jaylen that can all handle and create shots for him. At times, he’s a great screener and popper and he mixes it up and we bring some smaller matchups into it. So, he’s done a great job of not just handling it but playing off the ball.”
That’s what you see in the above video: Pritchard does a great job reading the defense and finding his spots accordingly. His teammates create shots for him because he creates space on his own. He doesn’t go undetected, but he slips behind the defense, waiting on the wings for a teammate to dump it off to him, or in the corners for skip passes. When the defense collapses on the man in the paint —or, say, on a driving Tatum or Brown — Pritchard tends to be the Celtic left open. Being one of the team’s best shooters, it’s a good bet that he’ll be on the receiving end of an inside-out pass.
“Him being one of our best shooters, guys are really looking for him,” Udoka said. “You can feel it, you can see it, they’re looking for him in transition. So, it just adds another layer to our team. But the confidence part was always there for him. It’s just a matter of the opportunity.”
To that point, Pritchard added, “My shot’s always been there. Anybody in practice knows that a lot of times with people shooting, it takes time to get the flow back of things.”
Against the Kings, he wasn’t just in the flow of things as a shooter — his eight assists were a season-high. With his passing, he proved that not only is his shooting a matter of reps, but his playmaking for others as well.
Now, sure, it helps to have a scorching hot teammate like Jayson Tatum in his back pocket, ready to score at any moment. But a star’s job is made much easier when he is being fed by a player as savvy as Pritchard has proven that he can be. His eyes are constantly active, seeking out players lingering in the corners he so loves to populate himself. He’s adept at hitting cutting bigs, and at delivering hand-offs that he knows will set up a Celtic with something that resides squarely in their bag.
“At the end of the day, I’m a basketball player,” Pritchard said. “You could put me anywhere on the court, and I’m going to try to make something happen.”
He backed up his words in a big way last night. His teammates and coaches see it. Soon enough, the league will, too.