There was no shortage of Payton Pritchard highlights on Tuesday night. Enough so that Jaylen Brown dubbed him “the G.O.A.T.” after Pritchard sparked Boston’s rally from a 17-point second-half deficit for a 116-111 triumph over the Indiana Pacers.
But the moment that hammered home why Pritchard has so quickly earned the trust of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, breaking through a rookie wall that has slowed up many a first-year player, came during another early season crunch-time cameo in which Pritchard showed exactly why he’s nicknamed FastPP.
With Boston clinging to a four-point lead with under five minutes to play, Pritchard accelerated past Victor Oladipo and, when Myles Turner shuffled over to help, the rookie lobbed the ball at the rim for Tristan Thompson. Alas, TT was a little late leaving the ground for the lob from PP, and TJ Warren was able to punch the ball away for a steal.
Pritchard’s heels were essentially on the baseline as Oladipo broke out from above the charge circle. With a series of powerful steps, Pritchard closed the gap by midcourt and, when Oladipo slowed to time his approach to the basket, the rookie lunged and poked the ball free.
Marcus Smart retrieved it. The action went back the other way, with the ball quickly back in the hands of Pritchard, and, despite being thin on numbers, Pritchard’s threat of attacking the basket in transition had three defenders shuffling to his side of the floor. The rookie zipped the ball across to Smart for an open 3-pointer and a much more comfortable seven-point cushion.
Pritchard finished with 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting with five rebounds, five assists, and that key theft. He had three turnovers but, much to Brad Stevens’ pleasure, none were caused by inadvertently stepping out of bounds during an offensive possession.
Four games into his NBA career, Pritchard, the No. 26 pick in November’s draft, is fifth on the team in total minutes played (88). He’s logged more floor time than two of Boston’s key rotation players during their bubble run in Grant Williams (61 minutes) and Daniel Theis (86). He’s just ahead of veteran offseason acquisition Jeff Teague, who he was supposed to be ahead of him on the point guard depth chart entering the season.
All of which is to say that Pritchard has blown away any sort of reasonable expectation. Sure, being a four-year player at Oregon made him a bit more NBA ready than some of the teenagers the Celtics have snagged in recent years. He is older than Jayson Tatum. But to muscle his way into the rotation this early, to have Brown dubbing him the GOAT, and Tatum playfully calling him “8 Mile,” is still remarkable.
While Kemba Walker is sidelined, there will be suggestions that Pritchard should even be considered for starting duties in small-ball lineups, especially if Stevens navigates away from the two-big variation he’s used to start the year. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Pritchard’s role is because if he continues to impact winning the way he has, he’s going to be a key rotation presence on this team.
The Celtics don’t win Tuesday night without Pritchard’s game-changing energy.
“Payton came in there with the confidence,” said Brown. “Definitely needed a spark coming off the bench and Payton was everything and more for us tonight. We're gonna need more guys to continue to step up. Excellent guy. Excellent job from Payton Pritchard, man. Kid can play and we're looking forward to him and other guys stepping up as well in the future.”
Before Tuesday’s game, Stevens playfully needled the rookie about his propensity to step on the sideline early in his pro career. All while doing his best to keep the Pritchard excitement from ballooning too fast.
"He’s a good player. He’ll be a good player for a long time,” said Stevens. "I don’t want to overdo it. The rookie hype train can sometimes be a good thing and sometimes be a bad thing. He just needs to keep playing, keep getting better, do the best he can, and try to catch the ball inbounds.
"That’s the No. 1 goal. If he can go a whole game without being out of bounds, that’d be quite a victory.”
Well, chalk Tuesday night up in multiple win columns. But it turns out staying inbounds wasn’t Pritchard's biggest contribution. He changed the entire complexion of the game — with help from fellow bench mobber Robert Williams — by bringing energy and effort after a dreadful start to the third quarter left the Celtics staring at a 17-point hole.
Pritchard even got some fourth-quarter run with a starter-heavy group. He’s now had multiple games with crunch-time lineups. It speaks volumes about the confidence the team has in him this early.
"Having that confidence from your coach and also from my teammates, it means the world to me because it can allow me to keep growing as a player and being able to help this team when I can,” said Pritchard. "Coming off the bench, I want to be able to provide a spark, get the team either going or help the team build more of a lead.
"I'm all about winning. That's why we play this game. I want to win and I want to help as much as I can to get a win. So, just tried to do that tonight.”
Pritchard certainly has a bit of Smart in him, especially if he’s going to produce those sort of winning plays. Danny Ainge drafted a younger version of himself and Pritchard has helped fill an obvious void with Walker sidelined to start the year.
Sorry, Coach, the rookie hype train is already nearing a high velocity. Fortunately for the Celtics, Pritchard doesn’t seem like the type that will get too content based on a small bit of early praise. Yes, even GOATS have to work to do on this team.