May 25, 2024

Through tough times, Payton Pritchard stayed confident. Now he’s the Celtics’ sparkplug

BOSTON — A little over a year ago, as the Celtics were celebrating another win in the locker room, there was one face missing. But that face was rarely playing anyway.

Payton Pritchard arrived on the scene with the Celtics and immediately made himself known. It was obvious why Danny Ainge had drafted him as soon as he arrived for training camp. He was a hooper. Someone who was so competitive that he seemed almost oblivious to his limitations.

That’s exactly what the Celtics wanted. But last year, Pritchard wasn’t someone they needed. There was too much depth at the guard position once they had traded for Malcolm Brogdon. So as the team was enjoying a victory, Pritchard was in the hallway, head down, as assistant coach Aaron Miles told him to hang in there.

That happened often throughout the season. Pritchard has always been a team guy, but that’s a lot to ask of someone trying to make it in the NBA. For someone who knows they are good enough to play for almost any team in the league, it’s hard being on just about the one team that won’t play you.

“I try to be (confident), but there’s definitely dark days, there’s frustrating times, especially last year,” Pritchard said, while his Celtics are awaiting the winner of the Cavaliers-Magic series. “You go through stretches, you ain’t playing well. It’s tough. But you kind of have to look at yourself in the mirror every morning and just know what you’re capable of and the work you put in.”

The Celtics made room for Pritchard to expand his role in the offseason. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Now there is no conflict over his role. The Celtics cleared the way for him, he’s the backup guard, and he’s embraced it. He isn’t frustrated anymore. And he is playing up to his contract, role, and the opportunity this team has ahead of it.

“I think that’s really what it comes down to, all the work, the hours I’ve put in it’s just built confidence,” Pritchard said. “Now I just feel like I can go against anybody.”

Against Miami last year, Pritchard’s minutes allocation was as follows: 12 in Game 1, DNP in Game 2, 12 in Game 3, then nine combined over the rest of the series.

This year, he played 22.9 minutes per game and never played fewer than 18. Every night, he is the man helping to run the second unit and is making the most of it.

“It’s been good. I’m ready for it,” Pritchard said. “This is what I want to do and be a part of this. So that’s kind of what I talked about last year and that’s what I wanted. So I knew I could contribute and I wanted to help to help win a championship.”

Pritchard could have easily refused to sign an extension last offseason after the way things went down. He could have harbored resentments.

But Pritchard grew in that hard moment, something his coach, Joe Mazzulla, has been preaching.

“I just think it shows that it’s like a growth mindset that you can learn from so many different people and different approaches,” Pritchard said. “It’s not just like one approach is the perfect one. There’s different methods to being successful all the time. So I just like the growth mindset he has and I think we all take it from him.”

Last year wasn’t the first time his coach preached a growth mindset. That’s an organizational tenet going back to Brad Stevens. That was his catchphrase, his guiding principle.

Pritchard embraced it right away, knowing he was going from a leader at Oregon to young player trying to fight for minutes in Boston.

“(I’ve embraced it) A lot. Since being in the league I’ve adapted and I think that’s the only reason I’ve been able to keep growing every year,” Pritchard said. “Because there’s been some frustrating times where during those times you can kind of quit and just fold but during those times you grow through them and keep learning and getting better and better and learn from every individual you come across. So it makes you better.”

When Mazzulla was asked about his high approval rating from his players, he immediately spun it toward the organization as a whole. They have to feel a sense of purpose. They have to feel like they are improving.

It was apparent Pritchard didn’t have that last year. But there was a map for his career. He couldn’t see it in the moment, but now he is bearing the fruit of that patience.

“They have to feel like there’s a compass for them as (to) where they want to be two, three years from now,” Mazzulla said. “They have to feel empowered. And so it just says a lot about our organization that when guys come in here, we don’t waste time we get better, and they feel that level of connectivity.”

Now Pritchard is woven into the fiber of this team. He is the sparkplug off the bench in so many ways that his shooting ability is usually an afterthought.

Pritchard doesn’t just have a bigger role. He has the right role.

(Top photo: Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)