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How Jayson Tatum can unlock Payton Pritchard

Payton Pritchard and Jayson Tatum had a massive positive impact together in 2021-22, but that fell apart last year. How can they get back to what made them great together?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It’s probably been a whirlwind 2023 for Payton Pritchard. From the lows of stumbling out of the rotation and requesting a trade, to what is probably the highlight of his life: hanging out with Isaiah Thomas.

The trade request eventually led to the opposite. Instead of leaving Boston, he was given an opportunity. With Marcus Smart out the door and only Delano Banton in at his position, Payton Pritchard should see his role increase. The 2022-23 season and the arrival of Malcolm Brogdon saw Pritchard’s playing time drop 350 minutes from the previous season, it was both predictable and disappointing for Pritch-stans.

Now, the carpet has been rolled out for the newlywed. One of the three big minute guards ahead of him is gone, his minutes will almost certainly creep up, likely close to or exceed the 21-22 season (1000 minutes).

A quick look at PP’s advanced stats may bring some concern with him serving a larger role. His net rating is troubling. Sitting at +1.4 this past season and +2.2 in the 21-22 season; those rank last and 13th on the Cs respectively (among players that actually played, aka the non-Broderic Thomas division). As a wise man once said, “not great.”

But there is hope for Payton. Like a wise old hermit, the protagonist runs into in the middle of the forest, Jayson Tatum provides guidance and purpose that changes things for Pritchard (please ignore the fact that Pritchard is actually older than JT for the sake of this rushed and poorly thought-out metaphor).

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Fluharty/Getty Images

Tatum makes everyone’s life easier, and that’s reflected in the fact that nearly everyone’s net rating improves when they play with him. There’s perhaps no player where that’s more profound than Payton Pritchard, however. This past season, PP’s net rating increased by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when he played with Tatum. The season prior, it rose by an astronomical 18.0 points per 100 possessions better when they shared the court. That is, in a word, obscene.

The issue with the number in 22-23 is that at +5.3 when they played together, it’s still worse than the Celtics as a whole. One could argue that Pritchard playing hurts the team. In fact, it would be hard counter that argument last year. But the opposite is true of 21-22, where Tatum and PP had a +11.8 net rating together, well clear of the team’s net rating of 7.4. So, what happened?

That’s a complicated question that’s one part Payton Pritchard, one part Malcolm Brogdon, and one part Joe Mazzulla. PP, for the first time in his NBA career, shot below 40% from three. That’s almost exclusively explained by an unexplainable drop in his shooting from the corners, where he barely eclipsed 30%, while shooting 39% above the break. Going from 40+% to around 36% isn’t career ending, but it really eats into the value of a guy like Pritchard, who’s primary offensive skillset is taking and making threes.

I say Malcolm Brogdon is at fault not because of some devious plot by Malcolm to undermine Pritchard’s role on the team. Although, that would be incredible content. Instead, it’s because he is simply a better player, and in a crowded backcourt, PP was deservedly the odd man out. A lack of playing time leads to a smaller sample size and less comfort in your role; both can add up to a career low shooting percentage.

Now we turn to Joe Mazzulla. I think Joe was a pretty inventive offensive coach last season, but he was not inventive with Payton Pritchard and did him no favors. Issue one, PP played 49% of his minutes with Tatum on the floor in 21-22, and it worked wonderfully. That number dropped to 41% in 22-23, and they were considerably less effective in those minutes together. Strangely, Tatum barely found Pritchard at all, and I don’t think it’s JT’s fault. They played next to each other, not with each other.

When Pritchard was out there with Tatum this past season, his role was very limited to spacing to the corners. That matters and it helps since Jayson Tatum basically only needs space to be effective, but both Tatum, Pritchard, and the Celtics can be more effective with just a little bit more ingenuity. Mazzulla should dip into Ime Udoka’s playbook and start using PP in the PP, the Pick-and-Pop. Udoka used Pritchard like a three-point shooting version of Bruce Brown with the guard setting the screen for the big.

Here’s 2 of the 5 assists (yes, only 5) Tatum had to Pritchard last year.

A strange broken play kickout, and then Pritchard coming over to help JT out of trouble and getting into an emergency pick-and-roll with Tatum setting the screen — not exactly masterstrokes of offensive design.

On the other hand, look at all the inventive stuff Ime Udoka was doing with Pritchard and Tatum in tandem, leveraging Tatum’s defensive attention and Pritchard’s lights-out shooting. Here is PP setting a screen in a double screen action for Tatum as the ballhandler and then spacing wide, waiting for Tatum to find him.

Here’s a more traditional double high screen and role with both guards setting the screens for Tatum. The defense chooses to double Tatum, which is generally a wise choice, and it gives Pritchard a practice shot jumper.

He was also used in the more classic pick-and-pop situation:

Tatum’s insane on ball gravity mixed with Pritchard’s elite shooting and bonkers range makes for a deadly pick-and-pop combination. Let Tatum draw a double or soft help, and then it’s a simple pass for an easy shot.

Do I think this should be the dominant action when Tatum shares the floor with Pritchard? No, and certainly Pritchard will do his share of sitting in the corner. But PP is a weapon, one that Mazzulla can extract additional value out of compared to his performance last year. Pritchard’s going to play next year, you might as well make the most of it and make sure Jayson Tatum’s out there with him.

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