How are the Boston Celtics are maximizing Payton Pritchard?

One of the most surprising rookies so far this season, Payton Pritchard has been put in a great position to succeed by the Boston Celtics.

Every NBA season, one or two rookies shock everyone out of the gate by immediately assuming a rotation spot and playing surprisingly competent basketball. Sometimes, it’s an undrafted rookie who had a low ceiling but was NBA ready, like Matthew Dellavedova. Other times, a second-round rookie asserts themselves early, like Malcolm Brogdon. Or, as is the case this year, a late first-rounder deemed a project shows he’s ahead of schedule. Through seven games, Payton Pritchard of the Boston Celtics appears to fit that bill.

The No. 26 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft out of Oregon, Pritchard certainly didn’t look the part of an instant-impact NBA player when the Celtics took him six weeks ago. Despite an accomplished career at Oregon as a lead guard, the conventional wisdom was: he’s not an impressive athlete, is undersized, and looks as much like former Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as his coach does, so it might take him a while to adjust to the NBA game — if at all. And with a lead guard timeshare of Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jeff Teague on the roster, minutes might be hard to come by.

Two weeks worth of games into the NBA season, though, Pritchard has edged out Tremont Waters in the rotation and has helped keep Boston afloat with Walker out due to a knee injury. He’s averaged a solid 6.6 points and 2.4 assists per game, and has been one of the more efficient scorers in the rookie class, seventh among players with at least 100 minutes in 3-point percentage (40.0) and boasting a 60.0 true shooting percentage.

What have the Boston Celtics done to make Payton Pritchard successful?

How has Pritchard overachieved thus far? It’s partially because of his speed, which has been legitimately impressive and was overlooked with the lack of an NBA Combine where he could put it on display. Pritchard has benefitted from the typical quick pace of the early season, and his burst looks like a legitimate asset.

But most importantly, the Celtics have continually put Pritchard in positions to succeed with lineup decisions that allow him to make the most of his skills. The vast majority of Pritchard’s minutes have come with either Teague (81 minutes) or Jayson Tatum (97 minutes) on the floor, meaning Pritchard hasn’t really been tasked with being the primary ball-handler so far. With Teague and Tatum taking primary initiation duty, that’s meant Pritchard gets a fair amount of spot-up looks, a much easier proposition for him.

The Celtics have also run Tatum as a screener for Pritchard frequently, which has been pretty lethal thus far. Tatum’s gravity obviously prevents opponents from drop-covering or blitzing Pritchard, and that allows Pritchard to isolate out of pick-and-rolls. This is a great set-up for Pritchard, a fantastic dribbler whose mastery of head-fakes and lunges force the defense to cave, even though he lacks the explosion to simply blow by his opponent like Walker would.

The second Pacers game, Pritchard’s best on-ball game of the year, also featured some double screens with Tatum and Robert Williams at the top. These either create some easy pick-and-pop opportunities for Tatum:

Or run Pritchard’s man close to the half-court line to get Pritchard an easy step towards the rim:

Pritchard’s early success has been just as much about his fit on the Celtics as it has been about his skill translation. His handle and quickness have been truly impressive and far outpace what many expected from him as he entered his rookie season. But the bigger reason for his early successes has been the Celtics’ ability to take those strengths and unleash them in a productive environment.

The team has been diligent about pairing him with the team’s biggest star as a screener, and always making sure he has a good roll man and shooters around him who can also put the ball on the floor. This consistently has allowed him to create in enough space to put his handle to good use and lets him work against a bent defense. Pritchard reciprocates that optimization with high-intensity defensive play and a willingness to move the ball and keep the offense flowing, both things that are not always a given with players who commanded as large of a scoring load as Pritchard did in college.

It remains to be seen whether Pritchard can keep this up once Walker comes back and his lineup circumstances change. There’s also the question of how defenses will adjust to his isolation opportunities as the season goes on, and whether he might see more respect from defenses that limit his opportunities. We are still working in small sample size theatre, and an expectation that Pritchard may regress as the season goes on isn’t foolish. But early on, Pritchard has looked like one of the ten or twelve best players in the 2020 NBA Draft class — and that’s been quite the surprise for a player who was a surprise pick at 26.

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