Payton Pritchard’s situation with the Boston Celtics has been a subplot of an impressive season. After helping his team reach the NBA Finals last year, Pritchard’s role within the rotation has been decimated since the arrival of Malcolm Brogdon.
I think we can all agree that Pritchard isn’t a bad player and could certainly find a consistent role elsewhere in the league. It’s just that Malcolm Brogdon brings more to the rotation and provides a scoring punch that is hard to rival. Still, without playing time, Pritchard risks stagnating, and that’s not fair to his career development.
Of course, since failing to secure a move away from Boston at the February 9 trade deadline, Pritchard has spent most of his time on the sidelines, nursing a foot injury that is clearly causing him some genuine problems.
“It’s nothing necessarily wrong with this (foot),” Pritchard said after scoring 21 points against the Toronto Raptors. “It can be a painful injury at times. But slowly, it’s going away.”
Yet, in one of the Celtics' last games of the season, where playing time was available, Pritchard showed up in a big way. We all know that when on the court, Pritchard is a floor spacer, capable of hitting shots from the logo and generating momentum with his ability to push the rock and fight for offensive rebounds despite the often noticeable size disparity.
However, against a Raptors team that is clearly some way from being a contender, Pritchard reminded everyone that he’s more than just a catch-and-shoot threat on offense.
Remember when the Celtics drafted Pritchard? The videos of his ball-handling workouts quickly went viral in social media circles, and the entire fanbase was excited at having a genuine ball-handling prospect off the bench.
After having Chris Boucher switch onto him on the wing, Pritchard goes right at his man. Forget the size difference and Boucher’s length advantage; the Celtics guard looks to test his foot speed and hip dexterity by putting the ball on the floor and hitting him with a series of quick crossovers while using his shoulders to sell directional changes.
The result is Boucher doing his best rendition of Bambi, sliding all over the place as he tries to hang with his man. Some might say that Pritchard’s willingness to pound the rock in this instance was unsuccessful, as he didn’t get past his man. However, Boucher was certainly backing up, allowing the Celtics guard to force his way forward and toward the paint — so, if you’re moving the defense backward and progressing into the restricted area, you’re having a form of success in my book.
Then, just as Boucher kills Pritchard’s chances of attacking the rim by sliding his feet over and connecting his hips to the guard’s shoulders, Pritchard finds a cutting Sam Hauser with a scoop pass to lead the second-year forward into an easy dunk with no help defenders rotating over to contest him.
Sometimes, it feels like teams underestimate what Pritchard is capable of outside of converting his perimeter jump shots, and that is something he often uses to his advantage, as we regularly see on the offensive glass.
With so much focus on defending Mike Muscala’s shot and boxing out Blake Griffin, Pritchard is able to ghost his way into the paint and contest the rebound with Fred VanVleet, turning the possession into a 50-50 battle which the Celtics guard hustles to win and secure a second-chance opportunity for his team.
What’s interesting is that Pritchard is slowly carving out a niche for himself on the offensive glass. It’s not like he’s ever going to be a legitimate offensive rebounder, but he does create problems for opposing defenses and oftentimes creates a scramble for the rock as he crashes in from the wings. In 184 regular season games, Pritchard has secured 89 offensive boards and has likely forced multiple turnovers to create opportunities for other teammates to secure the rebound.
The point I’m trying to make is that Pritchard is more than just a shooter. He’s improved as a small-screener, fights on the glass, has shown an improved ability to create for others off the dribble, and knows how to manipulate a defense when operating in the pick-and-roll. In my mind, there is no doubt that Pritchard could be an upgrade for multiple teams’ bench units next season and would solidify himself as a respectable rotational piece.
Of course, that opportunity is unlikely to come on a contending team, but for Pritchard, it would appear that being a contributing member of a roster is more important than championship success at this early point in his career.
“I want to be part of a winning culture but I want to also help that, be a really big piece of that,” Pritchard said during a January 29 appearance on the Point Forward Podcast. “I’m not saying it’s the best player on the team but I don’t know what my future holds unless I can take that next step. I don’t know what it is in five or ten years, but I just want to look back and know that I put my best foot forward.”
For now, though, the Celtics can rest assured that Pritchard appears to be nearing full health at the perfect time, and while his role within the team's playoff rotation is still unclear, Boston will undoubtedly feel confident that their depth at the guard position can provide them with an advantage over any team they come up against. It will only be once this season is over that we will learn of Pritchard’s future, but no matter what happens, it’s clear he’s earned a bigger opportunity, either with the Celtics or elsewhere.