Boston Celtics rookie Payton Pritchard hasn’t just emerged as a key rotation presence for a championship-craving club, but the No. 26 pick in November's draft is making a strong case for consideration for the NBA's top rookie honors given his two-way impact through the season’s first trimester.
Pritchard has muscled his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation with his 3-point shooting, gritty defense, and overall impact on Boston’s success. Pritchard isn’t going to put up the sort of stat line that could unseat LaMelo Ball as prohibitive favorite for the honor but there’s a case to be made that only Ball and Sacramento rookie Tyrese Haliburton have been more impactful this season.
All of which could position Pritchard to be only the second Boston rookie in the past 20 years to land on the All-Rookie first team. Jayson Tatum spotted there in 2018 and you’d have to go back to Paul Pierce’s rookie campaign to find the last Celtics player to earn that honor. Even high lottery selections like Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart were both second-teamers.
It is not uncommon for non-lottery players to muscle onto the All-Rookie first team. Last season, both Miami’s Kendrick Nunn (undrafted) and Golden State’s Eric Paschall (41st pick) both slotted on the first team. Still, it’s remarkable how important Pritchard has become for the Celtics this season given the team’s lofty aspirations and depth at his position.
Pritchard scored 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting -- all his makes coming behind the 3-point line -- over 29 minutes in Thursday’s much-needed win over the Raptors. Even with Marcus Smart sidelined with a calf injury, Pritchard’s play relegated Jeff Teague -- one of Boston’s veteran offseason additions -- to the land of DNP, Coach’s Decision.
The 3-pointers are what most will fixate on, and Pritchard has had four triples or more in three of his last eight games, but if you want to know why he’s earned coach Brad Stevens’ trust so quickly, just watch this clip:
First, Pritchard stopped Fred VanVleet’s push. Then, giving up 8 inches of size, he bumped with All-Star Pascal Siakam on the switch and steered him into traffic. When Kyle Lowry drove after two Celtics flew out to contest, Pritchard tiptoed around Siakam and positioned himself to take the hard charge.
The Celtics have a defensive rating of 106.5 during Pritchard’s 380 minutes of floor time this season. That’s four points per 100 possessions lower than the team’s season average. Like all small guards, Pritchard is going to have times when opponents simply shoot over him. But there have been instances this season where he’s defended bigs like Myles Turner and at least competed. He’s got a little bit of the Smart DNA in him with his grit and desire to take on all challenges.
Combine that with a fearlessness with the 3-point shot -- his final make of the night was a 29-footer that came maybe two steps outside the midcourt logo -- and a calmness with the way he probes with the ball, and the Celtics have a rookie that’s playing beyond his years. Which is somewhat ironic given how many scoffed at the selection because Pritchard was 22 when drafted and a four-year player that lacked the perceived upside of the many 19- and 20-years-olds that went before him.
Despite his penchant for scoring outbursts, Pritchard isn’t likely to score enough to do more than spot into the Rookie of the Year balloting. He’s 11th among rookies while averaging 8.4 points per game. Malcolm Brogdon nabbed the honor in 2017 while averaging just 10.2 points per game. Alas, that was a lean year with Joel Embiid finishing third despite playing only 31 games. No other rookie has averaged less than 15 points per game since Amare Stoudemire in 2003.
But Pritchard’s impact is accentuated by the way he positively impacts winning. No other high-minutes rookie is impacting winning the way he has. Just look at the net ratings for the league’s rookies averaging more than 20 minutes per game. Pritchard is one of only four players in the positive and the leader among the entire group:
For a Boston team that so desperately needed to add rotation-caliber talent around their core, Pritchard emerging so quickly is a major development. It will allow the team to hunt wing and size depth with the Gordon Hayward traded player exception before March’s trade deadline with confidence that the point guard spot is well stocked with Kemba Walker, Smart, and Pritchard atop the depth chart.