Last February, Celtics guard Payton Pritchard publicly and privately made it clear that he wished to be traded, and he voiced his disappointment when he was not. As the season progressed, neither Pritchard’s role nor his stance changed much, igniting questions about his future in Boston.
But in June, president of basketball operations Brad Stevens traded the team’s longest-tenured player, Marcus Smart, in the three-team deal that brought big man Kristaps Porzingis to the Celtics. Suddenly, the backcourt logjam had been eased, and Pritchard’s path to playing time became visible.
Pritchard said he viewed the trade as a sign of the front office’s confidence in him, but he has seen too much to believe that anything is guaranteed.
“For me, I’ve got to do my part,” Pritchard said by telephone Saturday, as he prepared to host his youth basketball camp in Foxborough on Sunday. “If I get the opportunity to play, I’ve got to show what I’m capable of and that I can help win at a high level. So, I’m just looking forward to the opportunity of showcasing that. At the end of the day I’m a winner and am obviously going to help Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum], because those are the two that are pushing us, but we’ve all got to help them get over the hump and ultimately win a championship.”
Pritchard said he has spoken with coach Joe Mazzulla often this summer, the discussions mostly focused on how he can affect games in different ways. The career 40-percent 3-point shooter is known primarily as a long-range marksman and a sturdy ballhandler, but he and Mazzulla believe he can add more than that.
“I think it looks different every night,” Pritchard said. “Obviously, I have the ability to shoot and space the floor, but also this year being able to take pressure off, and if I have to handle and bring it up and showcase more of the passing side of things, I can do that. But I’ve talked to Joe, and it’s going to be a lot of different things. Defensively, it’s my intensity getting into the ball, pressuring, getting my hands active, and just finding ways to affect the game every time.”
Mazzulla said last month that Derrick White will be the team’s starting point guard, and it appears that Malcolm Brogdon will be back in his sixth man role. Pritchard is certainly positioned to seize a more prominent role, but he knows Smart’s departure will create a void that the Celtics must fill collectively.
“It’s tough,” Pritchard said. “I’ve played with Marcus for three years and I’ve been around him since the beginning of my NBA journey. So, he’s helped me a lot. I look at him like a big brother. He’s a tremendous player. I know he’ll continue to do great things. And for what he brought at the defensive end and just his leadership in different areas, we’re all going to have to step up and fill those gaps. It’s a good opportunity for some of us, but he’s definitely going to be missed.”
Pritchard was part of the USA Select team that practiced and scrimmaged against the national team prior to its World Cup appearance this summer and said he benefited from playing against some of the world’s best.
Pritchard has been working out in Boston for nearly four weeks and said he has never seen this many Celtics at the Auerbach Center this early. He can feel the buzz and excitement related to the acquisition of Porzingis, and the continued ascension of this core that has been a title contender for several years but has yet to take the final step.
“I feel like guys are really motivated,” Pritchard said. “There’s a sense of urgency to do something special. And when you feel it, when you get that chance to win at this level, you’ve got to have a sense of urgency and work toward it.”
And Pritchard, still in Boston, still working toward his bigger chance, is eager to see where he fits in with this group. He stressed that his trade request last season was never related to a dislike of the city or the organization. It’s just that he is a gym rat, and sitting and watching simply ached.
“This is probably the best place to play basketball,” Pritchard said. “There’s no other place [like it]. But at the end of the day, in any line of work, you want to see where you match up, and play and compete, and that’s where my head was at. I still feel the same way about that. I want to go out there and play every game and compete, because I feel like I’m good enough to belong out there. I want to keep pushing myself to see how far I can take it.”