Celtics need to keep playing Payton Pritchard when they get healthy

One of the few silver linings to the slew of positive COVID cases around the NBA in recent weeks has been the opportunity for teams to see what they have deeper in their rotations, along with a fun array of real and hypothetical comebacks on hardship exemptions.

Admittedly, I would’ve preferred if the Celtics had brought in someone who could help more than former Celtic Joe Johnson. However, it did create a rare blissful moment in TD Garden when he entered and scored against the Cavaliers. However, this team needed some point guard depth.

Enter Payton Pritchard.

He had rarely appeared all season before late this month and broke out for a 9-for-22 streak (40.9%) from three before an 0-for-5 night against the Clippers on Wednesday cooled him (and the entire team) off.

Extremely shorthanded, the Celtics placed a heavy burden on him between playmaking and scoring. He played 44 minutes in Minnesota, then 34 against the Clippers. Only Jaylen Brown, developing as a playmaker himself, could assist Pritchard there with Jayson Tatum out. Disappointingly, Ime Udoka sounded ready to move away from Pritchard when the roster returns to full health.

“With Marcus and Dennis out, we didn’t have a lot of backup production there,” Udoka said pre-game on Wednesday. “We tried Romeo at times, had it in Jaylen’s hands quite a bit, but we do got capable guys. Josh has been a combo guard who did some in Philadelphia, and is capable of taking some of those minutes off. So that’ll help as far as keeping Payton’s (minutes) down a little bit. We got Brodric Thomas, who’s a young combo guard that we can lean on there, and then ultimately, we can let Al handle and bring it up and initiate stuff … don’t love the 44-minute deal, Payton is one guy that can shoulder that … it went that way, but that’s obviously a higher number than we’d like.”

Pritchard logged 34 against Los Angeles — probably a sweet spot for now before he slots in as the third point guard in the rotation. Eating into his playing time were Josh Richardson and Brodric Thomas, albeit unsuccessfully (4-for-16 FG, 0-for-8 3PT).

What Pritchard has accomplished joining the rotation ice cold over the past six games was impressive. He averaged 13.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 3.5 APG with 0.7 SPG. Against Philadelphia, he showed flashes defensively using his quick hands to turn over Joel Embiid.

Pritchard downed the Knicks with 4-for-7 shooting from deep and the Celtics outscored the Bucks by 14 points on Christmas during his minutes. He is probably the best pure shooter on the roster, and his ball-handling should help a team with facilitation problems even if he’s not great at it yet.

Summer League and his rookie season proved that he can hit threes. The team had aspirations in August of helping him become a better playmaker. His defense can show lapses, but only repetitions make that better.

Why aren’t they committed to seasoning both areas of his game now? Especially when he can provide this.

As this season progresses more toward mediocrity or worse, Udoka and his staff need to pay more mind toward development. Otherwise, Brad Stevens should force it.

Without Maine, there’s no way for players like Pritchard to improve without consistent playing time and Pritchard’s shown the baseline offensively to be a helpful contributor in this league. He’ll at least help Brown and Tatum shoulder less of a burden offensively, space the floor and make things easier for everyone involved. When that happens, it’s probably easier for everyone to play consistent basketball at both ends.

I understood why Udoka, and Stevens, and Doc Rivers before them, lean on veterans. It’s hard to argue younger, worse players should get minutes over Richardson when he’s playing well. But if this season goes south and the Celtics are clearly playing for the future, it’ll be time to make Payton Pritchard’s development a priority.

“As a competitor it is tough,” Pritchard said of his lack of minutes earlier this month. “But I just try to stay ready.”

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