Candid interviews with Celtics are sometimes shown on the video board during timeouts at TD Garden. At one recent game, players were naming celebrities they had been mistaken for in public. Most picked other NBA players. Some chose actors or musicians. Then the baby-faced rookie, Payton Pritchard, appeared on the screen. He was last.
“I don’t know if I’ve been mistaken for anybody,” the 6-foot-1-inch point guard said. “But when I walked into a gym sometimes, especially at Oregon, they would think that I was the manager.”
Some pro athletes would be bothered by such slights, or at least unwilling to reveal them. But Pritchard has never cared how others view his dreams. He is not here because of them.
He is here because he is a ruthless competitor, someone who would cry when he lost one-on-one games to an NBA veteran when he was just 15. Someone who would dribble weighted basketballs until blood dripped from his callused hands. Someone who played so constantly that coaches at every level would plead with him to take just one day off, just get some rest, just chill out a bit.
“He’s just the most driven, relentless kid,” Celtics director of scouting Dave Lewin said. “Being good at basketball is more important to him than anything.”
‘“He’s just the most driven, relentless kid. Being good at basketball is more important to him than anything.”’
Dave Lewin, Celtics director of scouting Dave Lewin
Searching for a game
West Linn, Ore., is a city of about 25,000 that sits 15 miles south of Portland. It’s big enough to have its own identity in the shadows of a metropolis, but small enough that if there is a basketball prodigy sprouting there, everyone will know.
When Pritchard was in sixth grade, West Linn coach Eric Viuhkola invited him to the varsity team’s morning workouts. One day Pritchard was drilling 3-pointers as if they were layups, and Viuhkola was impressed.
“You might even have been the second-best shooter in the gym today,” the coach said.
Viuhkola always told his players that he was the best shooter in the gym. He just thought it was funny. But 12-year-old Pritchard did not.
“Man, he pierced his eyes right through me,” Viuhkola recalled. “He says, ‘No, no, I’m the best shooter in the gym.’ He was the most competitive person I’d ever been around in my life.”
Pritchard was always in search of a game, and usually did not have to look far. When he was in elementary school, his parents became the legal guardians of his best friend, Anthony Mathis, because Mathis’s mother was moving to Wyoming and he did not want to be uprooted.
Mathis, who was Pritchard’s teammate at Oregon last season, was stronger and better at basketball when they were younger.
“They pushed each other,” said Pritchard’s father, Terry. “It sparked a fire in both of them.”
They would tug hoops into the road and play long after the streetlights came on, until police showed up and told them to go home. When they got older, they’d relocate to a basket in the back of a Safeway parking lot, where long, moonlit games went on without disturbance.
Their one-on-one battles sometimes became so intense that they ended with punches being thrown. Then they started over as if nothing had happened.
Pritchard made the West Linn varsity team as a freshman, and some of the upperclassmen bristled when he was moved into the starting lineup after just a few games. It quickly became clear he should have been there all along.
His training sessions fell somewhere between impressive and excessive. At voluntary workouts, as others lofted jumpers and checked their cellphones, Pritchard would be sweating through his shirt and going at game speed.
Most mornings, he’d arrive at the school gym around 6 a.m. for his own workout, including the day after erupting for 45 points in a West Linn win. His coaches told him to go home and get some sleep.
During lunch, Pritchard would meet his father at the track for another session — running sprints and jumping hurdles — before scarfing down his food. After basketball practice, he’d usually do another light workout or sneak in a five-on-five game somewhere, with chocolate milk serving as his primary fuel through the day.
Pritchard once came to practice with his hands covered in medical tape, and Viuhkola asked why. Pritchard winked and said he’d been dribbling too much.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Man, I’ve dribbled a lot in my life and never had to put tape on my hands,’ ” Viuhkola said.
Pritchard had been waking up at 5 a.m. and doing drills in his garage with a weighted basketball. The ball’s surface was coarse, and he had shredded his skin as he pounded it into the cement floor.
“They were like open wounds,” Pritchard said. “I had a lot of taped-up fingers.”
An NBA mentor
Point guard Steve Blake played for eight NBA teams over 13 seasons, including three stints with the Portland Trail Blazers. He and his family settled in West Linn even as the game took him elsewhere
During his workouts at a private gym there, he would notice the boy with the startling work ethic who somehow seemed NBA-ready. What started with Blake dispensing casual advice to Pritchard evolved into a basketball partnership.
The summer before Pritchard’s sophomore year at West Linn, he and Blake played one-on-one each weekday morning, sometimes intense full-court battles. Blake, who was preparing for the 2013-14 season as Kobe Bryant’s teammate with the Lakers, was trying to help Pritchard. But he also knew that no one in the gym would challenge him as much as this energetic, relentless teenager.
“It was great competition,” Blake said. “Even though he was so young, he was a special basketball player. He was competing and fighting and it really helped me out. But I didn’t take it easy on him.”
Pritchard lost every game against Blake that summer. It drove him crazy.
“Steve used to kick his butt,” Terry Pritchard said. “Payton would have tears in his eyes on the ride home, because he thinks he should win everything. But it was good for him. He was always preparing for whatever was next.”
The Nike Hoop Summit is an elite all-star game in Portland featuring USA Basketball’s Junior Select team against an international squad. Most of the players are high-level NBA prospects. Before those teams face each other, though, they scrimmage against a team composed mostly of college players from the Pacific Northwest.
Lewin, the Celtics’ scouting director, was at one of those scrimmages in 2014 when he noticed a tiny high school sophomore facing the international team that included future NBA stars Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. It was Pritchard, who had recently led West Linn to its second consecutive state title.
“He was the first kid that I can recall that was brought in to scrimmage while he was still in high school, and he really held his own,” Lewin said. “He was good. We took note of that.”
Pritchard played in those scrimmages as a junior, too, and during his senior year, he was back at the Hoop Summit, this time as a member of Team USA.
Catching the Celtics’ eye
Pritchard initially committed to Oklahoma, where his father had played football and his mother was a gymnast, but the pull of home was too strong and he flipped to Oregon.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, a Eugene native, is perhaps the greatest athlete in the state’s history, and he maintains ties to the region. So he had heard about Pritchard’s high school exploits.
When Pritchard was a freshman, Ainge and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren sat in the stands for one of Oregon’s Pac-12 tournament games, and Ainge was rapt.
“Danny just couldn’t stop talking about Payton and how hard he was playing,” Zarren said. “He wasn’t the best player on that team, but Danny kept saying, ‘Look at that little guy! He’s playing his [butt] off!’ ”
Pritchard helped the Ducks to the Final Four that year and claimed a larger role after the roster was gutted. His work ethic remained implacable, but sometimes it concerned the coaches.
“I didn’t want him to get burnt out,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “I wanted him to even just be fresh for practice to lead the team. So there were times he’d be in the gym and I’d have to go say, ‘Hey, let’s get out of here. Let’s take a day.’ ”
Pritchard declared for the NBA draft after his junior year. He did not intend to leave school, but he wanted to know what he needed to do next. He had workouts with the Pistons, Jazz, Kings, Suns, and Hawks. The Celtics tried to arrange one, too, but were unable to schedule it.
Pritchard had made 32.8 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 12.8 points and 4.6 assists for a Ducks squad that was 10-8 in its conference, hardly stirring numbers for an undersized point guard. The general NBA feedback was clear: He needed to be more consistent, and he needed to lead.
“So I just took that,” Pritchard said, “and I did it.”
As a senior last season, Pritchard averaged 20.5 points, shot 41.5 percent from the 3-point line, and guided Oregon to the Pac-12 regular-season title.
Zarren was in attendance when Pritchard scored 36 points in a Feb. 22 win at Arizona. That was the last time anyone from the Celtics saw him play that year. The season was shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic less than three weeks later. But Boston’s brass had seen enough.
“I just love the way he goes about his work,” Ainge said. “Not only is he a good player, but his preparation and competitive spirit are consistent every single day. He gives you everything he’s got.”
‘Now, I don’t stand a chance’
With no NCAA Tournament or NBA combine to showcase himself in front of scouts, Pritchard improvised in the most familiar way. He filmed maniacal ball-handling videos from his garage and posted them on YouTube. He went back to his high school track and re-created the lunchtime workouts with his father. He trained with Blake at the former NBA veteran’s home gym, with one-on-one games that took on a different tenor.
“Now,” Blake says, “I don’t stand a chance against him.”
Before the draft, Altman received a call from Celtics coach Brad Stevens. He told Stevens Pritchard had a great work ethic and was amazingly coachable, and that he had a competitive streak unlike anything he had ever seen.
Back in Boston, Pritchard had become one of Ainge’s top targets. But there was discussion about when to pounce. Pritchard generally was viewed as a late first- or early second-round choice, and the Celtics owned the 14th, 26th, 30th, and 47th picks.
Pritchard watched the draft at his parents’ house, surrounded by a small group of friends and family. As the first round neared its end, he received a call from his agent.
“He didn’t say anything, but he had this look on his face,” Terry Pritchard said. “I knew.”
Ainge did not want to risk losing Pritchard. The Celtics selected him 26th overall.
Boston returned most of its core from a team that came within two wins of the NBA Finals, and it added Vanderbilt sharpshooter Aaron Nesmith with the 14th pick. But Pritchard instantly became an important part of the rotation.
Over the season’s first few weeks, he led a comeback win against the Pacers, made a last-second game-winner against the Heat, and scored 23 points against the Raptors. He is now averaging 7.7 points per game and has made 41.6 percent of his 3-pointers, the best mark among players who have been on the team all season.
“He just has a natural, inherent level of determination and resolve,” Lewin said. “His work ethic is abnormal, even among guys you’d find at this level.”
In March, the Celtics traded their other backup point guard, veteran Jeff Teague, to the Magic. It was a clear sign that Ainge wanted to create more opportunity for Pritchard, and that the team believed he could embrace it.
Now, he is ready to seize an important role in the playoffs. Now, he is on the verge of ensuring that when he walks into a gym, everyone will know his name.