Payton Pritchard quickly corrected a question about entering the Celtics win over Philadelphia for the first time in the third quarter.
“It was the fourth quarter,” he responded.
Pritchard, the Celtics’ reserve guard, has experienced another wildly inconsistent and choppy season with playing time. He feels he’s good enough for a defined role, steady minutes, and more recognition. But there are nights such as Wednesday when he gets summoned for just a few minutes or even one possession.
He played 21 minutes in Friday’s 127-116 win over the Charlotte Hornets at TD Garden, the most time for him in two weeks, but Pritchard said he was closely following Thursday’s trade deadline, hoping he would be moved somewhere for an opportunity to play.
“I definitely was expecting and hoping [for a trade],” Pritchard told the Globe. “But you know, I [have to] look at the good things. We’re the best team in the NBA right now and we have a great team with really great players, so for me it’s an opportunity to learn and to keep growing.”
Pritchard has watched his minutes steadily decrease each of his three seasons since being drafted 26th overall in 2020. He’s averaging 12.6 minutes and 4.7 points this season, both career lows. He played fewer than five minutes in the win over the 76ers and has played fewer than 10 minutes in 16 games, in addition to 15 did not plays, coach’s decision.
The Celtics’ acquisition of Malcolm Brogdon considerably sliced into Pritchard’s minutes, and he hasn’t been able to gain much traction under interim coach Joe Mazzulla. Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens offered Pritchard in a package with Danilo Gallinari for San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl, but the Spurs declined the offer and traded center to the Toronto Raptors ahead of Thursday’s deadline.
“It was an emotional day, but you know I’m here and I quickly changed my mind and I’m here to do a job to the best of my ability,” Pritchard said. “For me my mindset is just come in every day and keep getting better. The only thing I can do is focus on that.”
The Celtics can use Pritchard for depth and his ability to defend and make winning plays. Pritchard has attempted to capitalize on those short moments on the floor by making hustle plays, such as his defensive rebound in the win over Philadelphia.
When he gets extended minutes, Pritchard is capable of hitting threes, scoring at the rim and running the offense. But these situations occur when teams are vying for championships and pad their roster with talent. Somebody is going to be unhappy with playing time. Somebody is going to want a bigger role.
Pritchard is a four-year college player who just turned 25. He doesn’t have the luxury of waiting three or four years to find his footing in the NBA.
“It’s tough because as a competitor, you want to play,” he said. “Everybody knows right now I haven’t been playing. As a competitor, that’s the tough part. But like I said, I don’t have control over where I go, where I play right now. My focus has to be on helping the team in any way I can.”
Pritchard is eligible for a rookie extension this summer. The Celtics picked up the fourth-year option on his contract, meaning he will be under contract next season even if they don’t agree to a long-term extension. So Pritchard will have to wait at least a few months to determine whether he’ll be back.
“For me, it’s just one day at a time now, focusing on my craft,” he said. “When we do play and whatever spots I get, just come in there and try to affect the game. I don’t know what that looks like but different ways each game.”
Mazzulla has credited Pritchard for his resilience, but that has not come with a promise for more playing time. The coach is going to play the best lineups to win games and use Pritchard however he believes will be the most effective, even if that’s 20 minutes on one night, 20 seconds the next.
“It’s just developing me to be stronger and stronger,” Pritchard said. “Thrown into the fire like that, to be on those situations, you almost just have to accept the challenge and do what you do. For me, I just look at it as a good thing and [I have to be prepared] mentally to be in any situation possible.”
Pritchard said he shifted from disappointed to motivated quickly after the trade deadline after a couple of conversations with friends. He has leaned on teammate Blake Griffin for support and his teammates understand the difficulty and unpredictability of his role.
“I refocused my mind-set and I have a great opportunity here,” he said. “I get to come to work every day and play basketball.”