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Payton Pritchard exuding greater maturity and skill in Celtics training camp

Payton Pritchard shared some regret over how he handled last season. After signing a long-term extension, he’s ready to contribute in any role the Celtics see fit this year.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

BOSTON — Payton Pritchard looked forward to a regular opportunity, minutes and a consistent role after the 2022 NBA Finals. He had already taken a step during his second NBA season after reuniting with a long-time Portland friend in Ime Udoka as his coach and moments after Boston fell short of a championship, like the rest of the team, only saw an uphill climb ahead. If he can play consistently, he said in his exit interview, he’ll produce more effectively.

The opposite happened. Malcolm Brogdon arrived in a trade the following month, Joe Mazzulla became head coach in September and Pritchard effectively lost his role on the team. He reportedly asked for a trade, and the Celtics explored it before declining to move him. Pritchard stayed on board, improved his skills behind the scenes and capped the season with his first NBA triple-double, another statement on what he’s capable of.

Summer provided more perspective, and while still driven to prove himself, he acknowledged last year tested his maturity and he’s no longer caught up in his role. Having a clear path to minutes helps, but Pritchard’s training camp demeanor reflects someone who’s now one of the team’s elder statesmen — one of three Danny Ainge draft picks remaining alongside Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Pritchard got engaged, signed a team-friendly $30 million extension and flashed improved playmaking to begin the preseason.

“The only thing I’m worried about is showing up every day here and getting my work in,” Pritchard told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog at practice on Monday. “As far as the games go, whatever minutes I get, I just gotta be ready for those minutes. I think in the past, I got caught up, and a lot of players get caught up, in when you’re gonna check into the game and how many minutes you’re gonna get, rather than just focusing on yourself and being ready for the moments you do get and taking advantage of that.”

Brad Stevens sat at the podium after the trade deadline and acknowledged the difficult position Pritchard sat in after Boston didn’t trade him. He asserted confidence in Pritchard stepping into the lineup if an injury emerges. Months later, after that didn’t happen, Stevens emphasized part of the job involves taking a back seat sometimes. He stressed to Pritchard throughout the year how good he is and noted his situation could change over the summer. Boston went on to trade Marcus Smart and Brogdon.

Pritchard returned to Boston midway through the summer alongside earlier-than-usual arrivals for the Celtics’ younger and newer players to work out together. Sam Hauser described Pritchard as “out for blood” in those sessions and the early days of camp, the guard demonstrative, aggressive and loud in the team’s practices. Luke Kornet called him the bench’s new leader on Monday morning. Players and coaches alike agreed when asked who stood out most through the opening week of camp — Payton Pritchard.

“He’s definitely been very intense. Every day he’s come in, and he works really hard,” Lamar Stevens told CLNS/CelticsBlog in New York. “One of the hardest workers that I’ve seen. You can definitely tell he’s motivated for the upcoming year and has something to prove.”

Pritchard explained his approach to last year through his love for basketball when reflecting on it this month. He wanted to play so badly that it led him to seek a home anywhere he could do so. The business and fame aspects to basketball never seemed attractive to Pritchard anyway, shrugging off Boston fans rising in ovation when he’d enter games and calling for him when he didn’t. Pritchard doesn’t love interviews, amicable with his time but often short with his answers. It all goes back to his mindset — all he cares about is basketball.

That’s led to improvement on the floor despite him entering the league after a long college career and at the same as Jayson Tatum, who Boston drafted three years earlier. Summer League and practice sessions with Joe Mazzulla aimed to improve his playmaking, adding weight and practicing in Udoka’s switching scheme allowed him to survive defensively at his small stature. He studied Steph Curry to learn how to succeed off-ball with Brown and Tatum. Pritchard remains at his deadliest sizing up opponents and shooting off the dribble, but many players can put up 30 points with enough shots and ball time. Transitioning to a role, making the most of fewer shots and opportunities, decides who stays and goes in the NBA.

Mazzulla, who spoke during the summer about his own difficulty transitioning to a more friendly role as an assistant to Pritchard’s head coach, wished he handled the year differently, too. Nonetheless, he saw Pritchard’s four-year extension as a reward.

“Payton’s one of my favorite people,” Mazzulla told CLNS/CelticsBlog. “Most guys in his position, the league breaks them. When you go from year one, playing a little bit, year two, not playing, year three, kind of playing and then the league can break people. He’s not one of those guys. He continues to be a tough S.O.B for us. I’m happy that I get to coach him this year ... dealing with guys like (Pritchard), in and out of the rotation, in and out of the league and out of lineups was something I fell in love with as an assistant. So I’m just finding ways to get better at that (as head coach), whether it’s when the assistants are running drills, you’re on the court, you’re rebounding for the guys just to try to be there for them.”

Pritchard became the story of the Celtics’ first preseason games, shooting 52.3% on 44 shots, hitting 13-of-31 (41.9%) from three while averaging 21.3 points and 4.0 assists per game, with a nearly 2:1 AST/TOV ratio. His pick-and-roll play visibly improved, he grabbed five steals defensively and blew Brian Scalabrine away with a gather step move into an off-footed layup that the color commentator had never seen before from Pritchard. Boston plans to deploy him off-ball again, allowing him to fully adapt to that role away from the Celtics’ stars who draw so much defensive attention.

He also looks leaner and in better shape, which will inevitably help as the Celtics transition away from the switch-heavy scheme from the Udoka era and into coverages based around covering space in front of Kristaps Porziņģis. Boston wants to create more turnovers and back line defense from the team’s new big man should allow for more perimeter aggression. That also puts Pritchard in position to play effectively more often, taking on longer stretches, but also prepared to sit behind Derrick White and Jrue Holiday.

Mazzulla’s favorite word in camp remains spacing. Close behind it this year — flexibility.

“(Pritchard’s) fun, he can hoop,” Holiday said, sharing his first impressions of Pritchard. “Just a natural bucket. The way he plays is so easy. It looks like it just comes naturally to him. Always fun to watch him play, but playing with him, he’s fun to play off of. Obviously, the shooter that he is, he can play off-ball or you play off-ball and he has the ball. Very versatile player.”

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