It was around this time last year that numerous media members began to release profiles on Payton Pritchard, focusing on his intense work ethic and insatiable hunger for success. We heard about how the young guard from Oregon was dedicated from a young age and often overachieved due to his commitment in practice and while working out on his own.
“Payton developed a routine and stuck with it. He would wake up to dribble or shoot for an hour before school. On the mornings of game days, he would hit the weights and Vertimax machine. On the mornings of non-game days, he would put in more work on the court. Weekends were usually for AAU basketball tournaments or camps,” The Athletic’s Jay King wrote in his profile of the impressive young guard’s early development.
Pritchard had begun chipping away at the Boston Celtics rotation in Brad Stevens’ final year as head coach and looked hellbent on proving he could be a valuable sparkplug off the bench. Tight handles, mesmerizing bursts of speed, and Stephen Curry-level range from deep all went towards building a case for the rookie guard to consistently see the floor.
Fast-forward to this season, and we’re seeing the 6’1’’ guard re-establish himself all over again. Things are different this time, though. New head coach Ime Udoka has continually challenged Pritchard to round out his game and become more than just a catch-and-shoot threat on the perimeter because this new version of the Celtics has no time nor place for single-skilled assets - at least, not consistently.
“He’s obviously one of our best shooters, but the trick for him was to learn to play off the ball more. And understand that we have Marcus, Derrick, Jayson, and Jaylen that can all handle and create shots for him. At times, he’s a great screener and popper, 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,” Udoka told the media following a big performance against the Sacramento Kings.
After Dennis Schroder was moved at the trade deadline, Pritchard began to see consistent floor time, allowing him to continue his development while providing the Celtics bench with a scoring punch. When playing off-ball, the sophomore guard has become an integral cog in the Celtics' “ram series” which gives the Celtics multiple scoring opportunities on the strong side, while also being an impressive point-of-attack threat who can penetrate or create for himself off the dribble.
Since February 10th when Schroder was dealt to the Houston Rockets, Pritchard has averaged 45.5% from three. No matter which way you slice it, or how many other caveats you want to add to his game, Pritchard is a bucket, from anywhere he chooses, and against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2, he decided to show out.
In 15:32 minutes of game time, Pritchard dropped a modest 10 points but did so on 5-of-7 shooting. The crazy thing is, the sophomore didn’t hit a three, which, while uncharacteristic, goes to prove that he’s more than just a spot-up scorer.
Whenever thinking of Pritchard’s overall offensive skill set, you have to credit him for his ability to create space for himself off the dribble. Sure, a lot of the time we see the bench scorer pound the air out of the rock, which is normal for a second-year guy, he’s also becoming increasingly adept at using his body and/or stepbacks to generate scoring pockets for himself.
It’s natural to think of threes when discussing Pritchard, but according to Cleaning The Glass, the young guard is shooting 50% from long mid-range - which is basically the free-throw line extended up to the three-point line, although those shots only account for 13% of his total shot attempts. Still, in the playoffs, the mid-range game becomes a little more important as defenses dare teams to beat them from an analytically unfavored position of the court.
Of course, the mid-range is only unfavorable if the player shooting the ball is a bad shooter from that range. Nobody is telling DeMar DeRozan to change his shot profile, and while Pritchard is nowhere near that level, he should have a green light to attack pockets behind the perimeter defense whenever possible.
Against a Nets team that is consistently overhelping on defense, searching for ways to limit Jayson Tatum’s impact on the game, there’s room for players like Pritchard to step up and make a difference. Grant Williams has taken the bull by the horns in recent games, but most of that impact has come on the defensive end - but let’s not forget that 100/100/100 night!
We’ve also seen a big development in the scoring guard’s ability to knock down shots off the dribble, which ensures defenders don’t try and cheat off of him when he’s driving the ball. As such, Pritchard is one of Boston’s most reliable floor spacers and holds a significant amount of gravity across the top two levels of the court.
Pritchard was a huge part of the Celtics closing out Game 2, and while his minutes will certainly fluctuate throughout the Celtics' playoff run, he's going to be an important role player for the team off the bench, especially in situations where the team needs a bucket or two - and if that’s not what you define as a swing factor in close games, then I don’t know what is.