Boston Celtics’ rising stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have become household names across the NBA.
Early on this season they’re the two players rightfully at the forefront of all Celtics chatter — and if Boston is going to realistically compete for a title, that’s the duo that will take them to the promised land.
However, through the first eight games of the 2020-21 campaign, an unlikely rookie has slid in and stole a slice of that spotlight. His name is Payton Pritchard, and if his scorching start to the year is any indication of what’s to come, he’s going to be a key piece to the puzzle for head coach Brad Stevens’ crew.
I’ll be the first to admit it: when the Celtics took Pritchard late in the first round of the 2020 NBA Draft (pick 26), I didn’t think much of it. I knew he had an impressive career at Oregon and a consensus first team All-American as a senior, but I never thought he’d even be a factor in the rotation as a rookie, let alone play a big role from the jump.
Ordinarily, players who compete for all four years in college don’t tend to be high recruits in today’s NBA. The majority of lottery picks and first round selections are good enough after one, two or even three collegiate campaigns to enter the professional ranks. It’s not often you see an extremely gifted player like Pritchard stay in college for all four years before declaring for the draft.
Now that’s not to say it’s never happened before; former league MVPs like Steve Nash and Tim Duncan played all four years in college and went on to have phenomenal professional careers. But in recent years, that occurrence has become less and less common.
So what’s allowed Pritchard to thrive in the early stages of his rookie season? The number one reason has to be opportunity.
With Kemba Walker still nursing a knee injury, Stevens turned to Pritchard for reserve guard minutes beginning in the season opener against Milwaukee two weeks back. Nothing the 6-foot-2 floor general did in that outing jumped off the page (he contributed three points, one rebound and one steal in 13 minutes), but his contagious energy and effort was a welcome sight for Celtics’ fans.
Over the next seven games, Pritchard saw 25, 23, 27, 21, 16, 27 and 32 minutes of playing time, respectively, and the positive statistical numbers quickly began to shine through. He scored 13 points with a pair of steals against Indiana, had a 10-point, five-rebound, five-assist outing the following night against the same squad, and most recently, he poured in 23 points and eight assists in a win over Toronto.
Heading into Wednesday’s road tilt against the Miami Heat, Pritchard was averaging 8.6 points, 2.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists. More impressively, he’s knocking down his shots at a ridiculous rate (54% from the field, 42% from deep and 87.5% from the line). It’s starting to become more and more evident that Pritchard’s four years of college hoops proved beneficial in terms of his growth as a player, and at 22 years old, he’s got more experience under his belt than the majority of all other rookies.
So Pritchard has been great; that’s not up for debate. But the big question is, is it sustainable?
When Walker inevitably returns to the lineup, Pritchard’s minutes will have to be dwindled down. Whether that’s by a small or significant margin remains to be seen.
One thing we do know is that Pritchard has earned his playing time. He’s smart, he’s crafty, he’s a more than capable shot maker, he’s quicker and faster than you’d expect, he plays tenacious defense, he can pass, and he really hasn’t made many mistakes you normally see from rookies.
I’m not going to sit here and say I believe Pritchard will blossom into a franchise player or even an all-star caliber talent. But his game is so NBA ready and he’s the type of player that could contribute to any winning culture.
It’s only been eight games, but Pritchard is swiftly becoming a fan favorite for obvious reasons. We’re going to continue to see a lot of him — at least until Walker returns — and for now, we should just sit back and appreciate what he brings to the table. Because if nothing else, he’s a whole lot of fun to watch.
Nick Giannino can be reached at NGiannino@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGiannino_SN.