For the Boston Celtics, Payton Pritchard has been exactly what the doctor ordered.
Boston sported, arguably, the NBA’s worst bench unit a season ago. Despite a fearsome-foursome of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, their lack of depth hurt them all season long. It stood in direct contrast to their Eastern Conference Finals opponent, the Miami HEAT, and, ultimately, sank the Celtics’ shot at the NBA Finals.
Now, with Hayward gone to the Charlotte Hornets and Walker on the mend, it was only logical to expect that dearth to once again be their Achilles heel. But, on the contrary, the bench has been rejuvenated — or, at the very least, much improved — to start the 2020-21 season.
And, albeit unexpectedly, Boston has the rookie out of Oregon to thank for that.
Pritchard, the 26th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, faced some serious questions about his game in the lead up to the season. He left the NCAA as the recipient of both the Bob Cousy and Lute Olson awards, given to the nation’s top point guard and non-freshman player, respectively, and served as a leader for the Ducks throughout his four years with the team.
However, in the NBA, a league that’s far bigger, faster and stronger than any competition he’s ever faced, plenty were concerned as to how Pritchard’s game might translate. He’ll never be the most athletic player on the court and, when combined with his 6-foot-2 frame, that raised some serious concerns about his defensive viability at the game’s highest level.
On top of that, Pritchard was far from the only addition the Celtics made this offseason; fellow rookie Aaron Nesmith was thought by some to be the best shooter in the draft, while Jeff Teague and Tristan Thompson are battle-tested veterans that would demand a rotation spot from the jump.
Despite those stacked odds, however, Pritchard immediately took a rotation spot for his own, ahead of the higher drafted Nesmith and alongside the veteran Teague in Boston’s pecking order. In doing so, he’s brought a major spark to a bench that desperately needed one.
Save for a 23 point, 8 assist performance against the Toronto Raptors, he hasn’t jumped out of the boxscore. But Pritchard’s played with a veteran’s confidence and has contributed in nearly every game so far this season.
In fact, he’s played with a tenacity that even some of the more hard-nosed veterans lack, while his knack for the timely play has put Boston in the position to win on almost every possession. Pritchard is a +45 in his 10 games played, good for second among rookies and third among Celtics.
Like on this steal and drawn foul with the clock winding down against the Washington Wizards. Or his tip-in game-winner against the HEAT. Pritchard, at all times, is aware of where he needs to be on the court and, more importantly, when he needs to be there to put the team in the best position to succeed. Likewise, he’s moved with or without the ball and put himself in the position to help his teammates make the easy play as often as possible.
That presence of mind is something you just can’t teach — and Pritchard has it in spades.
Beyond the court, Pritchard has easily endeared himself to his Celtics teammates. Brown referred to him as “the GOAT” after just his fourth game, a win over the Pacers in which Pritchard finished with 10 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in just over 27 minutes and was clutch down the stretch. Marcus Smart, known for his tenacious style of play, has said “the sky’s the limit” for Pritchard and has noted many similarities between himself and the rookie as far back as the preseason.
A bit more reserved, head coach Brad Stevens said “[Pritchard]’s had more good nights, for sure, than not,” after the rookie flashed against the Raptors.
Still, it’s clear Stevens, like the others, has quickly taken a liking to Pritchard and, further, has expected a lot of the late-first rounder. Pritchard, on multiple occasions and despite his lack of NBA experience, has served as part of Boston’s closing lineup, an ultimate show of respect from a coach like Stevens that values defensive execution above most else on the court.
“We’re going to ask him to do a lot right now. And, fair or unfair to him, he’s going to have to be consistent for us, for us to have a chance to be a good team.”
And Stevens is right; to be the best version of themselves, Pritchard must continue to improve his own game and help push the bench even further.
Of course, that kind of pressure is nothing new to Pritchard who, over his four seasons with the Ducks, carried the team on his shoulders and constantly stepped up when they needed him most. And, while he’s been lauded with praise, the rookie has continued to stay humble.
“Coming in, I’m just trying to do my part,” Pritchard said after the team’s aforementioned win over the Pacers. “It’s my fourth game, everything’s coming at me fast and I’m still figuring things out.”
“I just want to win and I want to help as much as I can to get a win.”
As the Celtics forge their path ahead and continue to outfit the roster, players that not only contribute right away but can elevate the play of Boston’s star duo, Tatum and Brown, will be the priority.
And, if any of them are as rock-solid as Pritchard has been so far, the Celtics will be well on their way to an NBA title.