When the Celtics traded guards Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon during the offseason and added only Jrue Holiday to their backcourt, it was a sign of the team’s trust in fourth-year guard Payton Pritchard.
During the preseason, Pritchard seemed energized by the apparent vote of confidence and appeared primed to seize a key role. Then, less than two weeks before the start of the season, he received a four-year, $30 million contract extension.
There is still plenty of time for Pritchard to become an essential piece this year, but the first two weeks of the season, the early momentum has stalled. He was 0 for 4 from the field and held scoreless in the 106-103 loss to the 76ers Wednesday night.
When removing his dominant but mostly irrelevant fourth quarter in the Nov. 1 blowout of the Pacers, Pritchard is just 2 for 24 from the field over his last five games.
After Wednesday’s loss, Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla praised Pritchard for how he has affected the game in other ways. He said Pritchard is doing a good job of pressuring the ball and executing the defensive schemes. He is pleased with his effort.
“It’s just tough sometimes,” Mazzulla said. “He’s the point guard sometimes, sometimes he’s the off-ball guard, and so it’s just a matter of just finding that rhythm in that second unit because of the starting subs.
“Sometimes the matchups change, the lineups are a little bit different. So he’s just trying to find where he can be his absolute best, and some of that’s on me.”
Ultimately, the Celtics will need Pritchard to knock down shots. He has had plenty of open looks during the first seven games, and he will continue to get them as long as he is sharing the floor with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, and Holiday.
On Wednesday, the Celtics ran some early pick-and-rolls for Pritchard in an attempt to free him up. With 8:50 left in the half, he pulled up for a 27-footer over the outstretched arm of Paul Reed, a shot he is capable of making but was also no sure thing. This one missed.
A minute later, Tatum drew a double-team and found a wide-open Pritchard in the right corner. But this perfect look was off, too.
“We could’ve gone to some more high pick-and-rolls to get him going,” Mazzulla said, “because we’re going to need him if we’re going to be competitive as a team.”
It is encouraging for the Celtics that Pritchard has found ways to have an impact despite his icy shooting.
He has 26 assists and just six turnovers, and his effort has not waned. Mazzulla has praised his defense, and on Wednesday Pritchard provided more examples of his hustle, such as when he slithered into the paint and grabbed a pair of key offensive rebounds.
The Celtics have outscored opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions with Pritchard on the court, although that impressive figure is skewed a bit by his powerful fourth quarter in that mostly irrelevant Pacers game.
During the preseason, Pritchard showed signs of a breakout, averaging 15.6 points in just 23 minutes per game, trailing only Tatum and Brown. This long, winding season will present plenty of chances for him to get back to that level; it just remains to be seen how much patience Mazzulla will have if the shooting woes continue.
Pritchard said that in past years, he was sometimes overly focused on when and how his opportunities would arrive rather than simply capitalizing on them when they did. He said he is more mature now, and prepared to take advantage of any opportunity.
“For me, it’s just controlling what I can control, and that’s showing up every day, getting my work in and attacking the minutes that I do get,” Pritchard said. “So defensively, offensively, whatever that is. That’s kind of where my head’s at.
“Whatever I get, I’m going to go out and play hard, play aggressive and lay it all out.”