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Is Payton Pritchard NBA’s ‘Most Important Player You’ve Never Heard Of?’

Will Payton Pritchard shift the balance of power in the NBA’s Eastern Conference?

It sounds like a stretch, but ESPN’s Tim Bontemps believes the Boston Celtics rookie point guard is “the most important player you’ve never heard of on an NBA contender.” Bontemps bestowed the mantle upon Pritchard on Thursday night after he scored 20 points on a career-high six 3-pointers in the Celtics’ 120-106 win over the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden. It was the latest example of Pritchard providing much-needed scoring off the bench.

” … Pritchard, on the other hand, is now clearly the team’s sixth man,” Bontemps wrote. “He has played in every game when healthy this season — and for more than 10 minutes in every game but the one in which he suffered an MCL sprain against the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 22. Even with those missed games, he has made more 3-pointers than all but (Jayson) Tatum and (Jaylen) Brown on the Celtics this season, while his 46.9 percent clip from behind the arc has him second only to Memphis’ Demsond Bane (48.2 percent) among rookies taking at least three triples a game, and 10th among all players who have taken that many per game this season.

Pritchard’s ascension to sixth-man status is more impressive when one considers he entered training camp as the presumed third point guard on the Celtics’ depth chart.

“Part of what has made Pritchard so important is the lack of options around him on Boston’s bench. … Jeff Teague was signed to be the team’s primary backup point guard, but after scoring 19 points in the Celtics’ opening game of the season, he has shot 30 percent from the field (including a ghastly 28 percent on 2-point shots) and was dropped from Stevens’ rotation, with Pritchard taking his spot as the first guard off the bench.

” … Arguably no one else on the team can come in and provide that instant offense like Pritchard …. ” Bontemps continued. “And while he was an accomplished point guard at Oregon, playing on a Boston team with Walker, Tatum and Brown has allowed Pritchard to slide in perfectly as an off-ball player whose shot opposing defenses have to respect. He gives the Celtics’ primary scoring options vital room in which to operate and has been good enough defensively to hold his own.”

Pritchard has learned to do his job early in his NBA career.

“They draw such a crowd, so they’re going to have to draw a double-team or something,” Pritchard told reporters after the Celtics’ win over the Raptors, per Bontemps. “So it’s our job to space the floor and find openings for them.”

Will Pritchard’s emergence allow the Celtics to use their a $28.5 million trade exception more creatively than most expect? Bontemps believes Boston might be able to add an impact player before the March 25 NBA trade deadline.

” … And, with the East looking wide-open at the moment, such a move could allow the Celtics a chance to finally break through and return to the NBA Finals after reaching the Eastern Conference finals in three of the past four seasons.”

It’s still early in the NBA season and Pritchard’s career, but it already looks like the Celtics have found a valuable gem in the form of the 26th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

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