Payton Pritchard’s instant energy could become a key element for Celtics

While just about everyone else in the gym was winding down their off-day workouts, Payton Pritchard was ramping up.

Boston’s third-year guard was running through shooting drills at game speed after a practice last month and, after a few frustrating misses, Marcus Smart stopped on his way off the court to offer some encouraging words.

“I got the utmost faith in Payton,” Smart said after the quick chat. “The way he works, his work ethic, what I see him do, what I see every day. It’s kind of hard not to have faith in the guy.”

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This was near the height of Pritchard’s early-season DNP streak. He ended up logging seven DNPs over Boston’s first 10 games. Pritchard played less than 17 total minutes in that span. But instead of getting frustrated or tuning out, he pushed himself.

Post-practice 1-on-1 work against Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown became a competitive outlet. Malcolm Brogdonone of two point guards acquired in calendar year 2022 who pushed Pritchard down the depth chart, strained a hamstring in early November, which opened a door to more playing time for Pritchard.

But it was a sleepy Monday night visit from a feisty Thunder squad when Pritchard discovered his new role. The Celtics needed a caffeine boost in the third quarter of that game and Pritchard was a Dunkin’ turbo shot.

Pritchard helped the Celtics (quite literally) steal a win that night. He did the same thing on Friday night. This time it was a tag-team effort with Luke Kornet, igniting a 16-0 run to close out the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings. The run only ballooned in the fourth quarter.

“Right now, I think my role on this team is to be an energy boost,” Pritchard told NBC Sports Boston after Friday’s win. “When my number is called, I have to be ready.”

As Pritchard was conducting that walkoff interview, a giddy Smart shuffled by and screamed, “Double P in the building. Let them know about it.”

After Boston’s come-from-behind win over Oklahoma City, Smart professed that he “loved and trusted” Pritchard, something that then-coach Brad Stevens used to gush about Smart.

Pritchard could have sulked about his situation, instead he stayed ready. And the Garden got an instant jolt when he checked into the game on Friday night.

“Payton is a fan favorite, so when he got in the game, you felt that energy,” said Brown, who knows a thing or two about shifting the energy. “That’s all we needed. He came out and played hard. He made some big-time baskets, which I said before is really hard to do in this league. Just come off and be like a microwave like that. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do in this league.

“Payton almost seems like he’s mastering it. I know Payton’s a good player and going to have a good career. But I think these moments where he’s being mature and being a microwave is going to help him down the line in his game.”

Pritchard wasn’t naive to his situation entering the season. The Celtics had twice in the past eight months used first-round picks to acquire point guards who now slot ahead of him on a beefed-up depth chart. Coming out of camp, Pritchard noted, “It’s going to be a battle and I think we all know what it is.”

But he also pledged that his approach would never change. And he’s kept true to his word.

“Payton brings it every single day, whether it’s just practice or a game,” said Kornet. “He loves to play basketball and he’s always ready to go and it doesn’t take him anything to be ready. It’s just like, he is in that state. He’s great to have on our team and he pushes guys every single day. It’s just a lot of fun to have him around. He loves the game and it’s infectious.”

Competition is Pritchard’s lifeblood. But Boston’s roster construct, with Smart, Brogdon, and Derrick White all ahead of him on the guard depth chart, complicates a path to the sort of consistent playing time Pritchard covets.

He made some big-time baskets, which I said before is really hard to do in this league. Just come off and be like a microwave like that. I think that’s one of the hardest things to do in this league.

Jaylen Brown on Payton Pritchard

The injury histories of Smart and Brogdon make it necessary to have emergency depth in case the Celtics need to navigate a stretch at less than full health. That doesn’t make waiting for time any easier for Pritchard.

That’s why he routinely jumps into post-practice 1-on-1 games that most often pit him against Brown. Tatum and Smart have joined the festivities at times, too.

Despite giving up a whole bunch of size to every other competitor, Pritchard embraces the challenge. He has to work twice as hard as everyone else to generate a good look, but he doesn’t let it phase him.

And Pritchard isn’t bashful about letting others know when he’s getting the best of them.

“I try to always be feisty, no matter what,” said Pritchard, who noted the trash talk that flows is typically all in good fun. “People are just competitive at this level.”

For Pritchard, there is no better way to improve himself than competing against the Jays.

“Those two are like the best in the world,” said Pritchard. “So, for me, this helps my game even more to go out there and compete. It’s just going to sharpen me up, and I’m out there trying to compete with them and make them better, too.

Pritchard is earning $2.2 million this season and the Celtics triggered his $4 million option for next season. Boston’s lack of trade assets could make him a potential trade chip, but health concerns and his low price tag might encourage the Celtics to keep him around.

So, too, will nights like Friday. It’s quite a luxury to have a player like Pritchard, who stays ready for his chances.

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