When the Boston Celtics acquired Dennis Schroder during the off-season, it was obvious that Payton Pritchard’s playing time was going to suffer. Marcus Smart had already been confirmed as the team’s starting guard, and Schroder’s incredible year off the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bench during the 2019-20 season wasn’t too far removed from people’s memories.
Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that Schroder’s fit with the Celtics was questionable at best. The Braunschweig native is an isolation heavy guard who likes to call his own number before looking to tee things up for his teammates. Yet, while the Celtics often watched their second units’ offense stagnate for stretches, Pritchard was left on the bench, waiting for his opportunity to arrive.
Granted, Udoka did give the sophomore guard the occasional run out, but his minutes and opportunities were far too sporadic for the sharpshooter to ever get into a rhythm. In fairness, Pritchard did participate in 47 games before the trade deadline, averaging 12.1 minutes a night. However he only provided 4.7 points, 1.6 assists, and 1.6 rebounds per game on shooting splits of 37.4% from the field and 36.4% from deep. Respectable production given the limited run, but not what Celtics fans had been hoping for after a seemingly perfect summer from the Oregon native.
However, in the 19 games since Schroder was sent packing as part of the deal that landed Boston Daniel Theis, Pritchard has taken his game to another level. Sure, the per game numbers are only marginally better at 8.8 points, 2.6 assists and 2.5 rebounds a night, but his impact goes far beyond the box score.
“The trick for him was to learn to play off the ball, and understand that we have Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown that can all handle and create shots for. At times, he’s a great screener and popper, and 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. And then, like I said, him being one of our best shooters, guys are really looking for him, you can feel that you can see it, looking for him and transition, so just adds another layer to our team. But the confidence part was always there for him,” Ime Udoka told the media during a post-game press conference, as he discussed Pritchard’s impact off the bench.
Impressive off-ball movement
It’s that off-ball movement that has allowed Pritchard to manipulate defenses, both for himself and for others. Udoka has been using the undersized guard as the initial screener in ram sets, forcing defenders into tough switching decisions, and creating mismatches both in the post and on the perimeter.
For those that don’t know, a ram screen is when an off-ball offensive player sets a down screen for a teammate, the screen receiver then proceeds to set an on-ball screen for the ball-handler at the top of the perimeter. Switching defenses are usually drilled to switch on contact, so by placing Pritchard as an inverted screener in the action, the defensive guard usually ends up guarding a bigger ball-handler on the perimeter.
Udoka is finding ways to put Pritchard in the initial action, before asking the 6’1’’ guard to find space and stretch the floor for the team’s slashers, and to offer a scoring outlet should the defense opt to collapse on the drive.
We’re even seeing Pritchard placed into stack actions as the back-screener, or as an inverted screener in wedge actions – both of which are designed to pressure the rim but allow Pritchard to operate as a “popper” into scoring positions.
Of course, we can’t overlook the value of Pritchard’s defensive improvements either. The narrative surrounding any undersized guard, is that they’re always going to be a target, with teams consistently hunting mismatches. We saw as much with Kemba Walker during the bubble playoffs, when every team found new and inventive ways to put the former All-Star on an island defensively. But Pritchard isn’t Walker. The second-year guard is an engaged defender who holds his position to the best of his ability and fights on every possession, so much so, that even the teams DPOY front runner Marcus Smart has been seen congratulating him on his effort and hustle.
Sure, Pritchard is never going to be a positive on defense, his limited size and athleticism dictate that as fact. But, if the sophomore guard can remain a net-neutral asset in that regard, while giving exceptional effort on every play, then he will be a viable option for the Celtics down the stretch of throughout the playoffs – both of which are important to Pritchard’s long-term outlook both in Boston and in the NBA.
Elite sniping skills
With every passing game it’s becoming increasingly clear that Pritchard is more than just an elite three-point shooter, even if that will always be his calling card. Udoka challenged the young guard to evolve his game to become a reliable motion offensive piece, while also remaining respectable on the defensive end. Pritchard has risen to the occasion and is showing vast improvements across the board, but that isn’t stopping him from raining down deep three’s or putting guys in a blend off the dribble.
In 132 NBA games, Pritchard has proven that he’s an elite sniper, both off the catch and from movement, with the young guard hitting 40.9% of his three’s. Pritchard has also shown that he’s reliable anywhere on the perimeter, as Cleaning The Glass has tracked him converting 58% of his corner threes and 36% of his non-corner attempts, placing him among the top 11% of guards for three-point conversion rate this season.
A “winning player”
“People want to look at like stats and numbers but the beginning of the year, I’m playing sometimes at the very end of games and different minutes, so like I said before, my job is just come in and be ready knock down shots, play hard defense, make plays, be a winning player,” Pritchard told the media when asked about his current level of play.
Pritchard will probably never be a full-time starter on a contending team, but he’s proving that his ceiling is that of “first guard off the bench” for a contending team, and for the Celtics that’s a role he’s going to have every opportunity to fill. Now, that doesn’t mean he will be the secondary point-guard, because Pritchard is capable of playing the two also, but it does mean that he’s given himself every opportunity to be an integral cog for the team in the coming years. And for a player that was deemed a reach with the 26th pick in the 2020 draft, that’s more than most fans ever bargained for.
How tall is Payton Pritchard?
Payton Pritchard is listed as 6-foot-1 (185cm).