“The GOAT” in the NBA is usually a term reserved for Michael Jordan and maybe LeBron James. That didn’t stop Jaylen Brown from dubbing Celtics rookie Payton Pritchard “the GOAT” after just his fourth NBA game.
No, it’s unlikely that Brown thinks Pritchard is better than Jordan, James or even teammate Jayson Tatum. But the point guard from Oregon has provided a spark to the Boston second unit early in the season while Kemba Walker misses games with a knee injury. Pritchard had a career-best night in a Dec. 29 win over the Pacers, scoring 10 points with five rebounds and five assists.
“Payton is the GOAT, man,” Brown told media on Dec. 29. “Payton came in with the confidence. Definitely needed a spark coming off the bench and Payton was everything and more for us tonight. We’re going to need more guys to continue to step up, but excellent job from Payton Pritchard, man. The kid can play, and we’re looking forward to him and other guys stepping up as well in the future.”
Here’s what you need to know about the newest player making waves in Boston.
1. A high school legend in Oregon
Pritchard played four years of high school basketball at West Linn High School in Oregon. He won four state titles.
The first state championship was his school’s first in 16 years, but Pritchard ensured the gap wouldn’t be as long the next three seasons. As a sophomore, Pritchard hit a buzzer-beater to beat Jahlil Okafor in a showcase game. Then as a junior, he beat his current Celtics teammate Brown in another showcase game.
As a senior, Pritchard averaged 23.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 3.1 steals per game. And as usual, he won his final game of the season in a West Linn uniform.
2. An all-time great at Oregon as a hometown kid
Pritchard grew up in Tualatin, Oregon, about 90 minutes from the University of Oregon where he starred for four seasons. After four games on the bench as a freshman, Pritchard started from there on out for the Ducks.
As a senior, Pritchard was named the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year after averaging 20.5 points and 5.5 assists per game. He finished his career as Oregon’s all-time assists leader (659). He’s also the first player in Pac-12 history to record 1,900 points, 500 rebounds and 600 assists in his career.
3. An NBA Draft steal?
The Celtics took Pritchard with the 26th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, late in the first round. He was Boston’s second pick of the first round after grabbing Aaron Nesmith at No. 14 out of Vanderbilt. Depending on how a couple combo guards are classified, Pritchard was either the seventh or eighth point guard off the board.
Working against Pritchard was the NBA’s ageism, which seems to knock down the stock of four-year college players despite Pritchard’s college dominance. NBADraft.net wrote, “His speed, athleticism, and physical profile (6’2, 195 pounds) could make for a difficult transition to the next level.”
Pritchard’s ability to defend NBA-level point guards may determine his long-term NBA outlook, but Boston at the very least got a highly gifted offensive player at No. 26 overall.
4. An early antidote with Kemba Walker injured
Walker is missing the early part of the 2020-21 NBA season with a knee injury, and “won’t be back any time soon,” Brad Stevens told MassLive recently. That leaves the Celtics with three main point guard options: Marcus Smart shifting over to the point, the veteran Jeff Teague or Pritchard.
Early on, both Teague and Pritchard have come off the bench with Smart in the starting lineup. After playing 13 minutes in his first NBA game, Pritchard surpassed 23 minutes in each of his next three, including with that 10/5/5 line against the Pacers on Dec. 29.
When Walker returns, it could become a Teague or Pritchard situation, but the rookie has already provided a spark in his first handful of games that Boston could’ve only hoped for but not expected.