Once Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey inevitably head for the bright lights of the NBA, Oregon will be left with a void. Of course, incoming freshman Troy Brown Jr., Abu Kigab and Victor Bailey Jr. will help aid us in our separation anxiety. Yet, the biggest beneficiary of the “star” opening will be Payton Pritchard.
Recruited by almost every powerhouse in the country, Pritchard passed on opportunities with Kansas, Villanova, UCLA, Louisville, Baylor, Virginia, Wisconsin and Michigan State just to name a few. It was an easy choice for the No. 1 ranked high school guard in the state of Oregon.
We all know the Oregonian is a winner. Nobody wins four straight high school state championships without knowing how to close a game. And Pritchard dragged his winning mentality with him to college.
“I had to do what was best for me, and that was Oregon,” said Pritchard. “It was difficult at first because I was the new guy and I'd have to earn everybody's trust and respect.”
When newcomers are around this team, they believe Pricthard is older than his age because of the way he carries himself. At this time of the year, that could pay huge dividends.
Jordan Bell had an idea of what his Duck team was gaining when the West Linn native signed his commitment to Oregon.
“When I first met Payton, I was like, this is the most cockiest dude I've ever seen,” Bell said. “He had a crazy handle. He was good. You could tell he had it. Then, I heard he said as an eighth-grader he was going to win four straight high school championships. You know, the little dude did it."
The Team USA member at the 2016 Nike Hoop Summit is averaging 7.7 PPG, 3.8 APG, 3.2 RPG and 1.2 SPG in his freshman campaign with the green and yellow. Former 2014-15 Gatorade Oregon Player of the Year is shooting 40 percent from the floor, 37 percent from deep and 72 percent from the charity stripe while amassing 28.6 minutes per game in his first collegiate season. Most impressively, Pritchard averaged just 1.5 turnovers per game in the Dana Altman offense.
You can’t reach these unprecedented heights in an athletic career without a little swag. A tiny bit of cockiness or confidence goes a long way in a players development. Just ask Dillon Brooks.
Speaking of Brooks, when the star does indeed head for greener pastures, I can see Pritchard becoming the star of this team. Not many on the Oregon staff believed he was ready to play this year. In fact, some said he was a year away from being a contributor. As we all know now, that was hardly the case at the start of this season.
The freshman drew rave reviews from coaches and teammates alike heading into the 2016-17 season. Then, the offseason foot surgery of Brooks transformed “hype” into reality. Pritchard stepped forward, not only to fill the Brooks’ void but to start at the highly-coveted point guard position.
Championships at this level are won and lost based on the play of the point guard. It is rare that a freshman can lead their team, especially at a high level. In the year of UCLA’s phenom freshman Lonzo Ball, Pritchard has been overlooked from the start.
Pritchard started every game this season at point guard. He filled in admirably for Brooks at the start of the year. During his absence, the freshman averaged 11.25 points per game. He scored 18 points against Georgetown at the Maui Invite during DB’s season debut.
Let’s not forget, he had to overtake the ever-consistent Casey Benson in the Oregon starting five. Benson led the nation in assist to turnover ratio last season (4:1) as a sophomore. The 3-time Player of the Year from the state of Arizona was no slouch, but the freshman was too talented to sit on the bench.
“I figured out pretty quickly that these guys could make me better,” said the only Oregonian on the current roster. “We're all very competitive people. But we're all trying to win and it didn't take long for this to become a family.”
If the No. 3 Ducks want to advance past a determined No. 7 Michigan team, they will need their freshman to play with a veteran presence. Pritchard must raise his offensive game.
He was not asked to score this season. Instead, Altman needed the West Linn kid to control the offense and make smart decisions without turnovers. Yet, the head coach allowed his point guard to do what he loves most, share the basketball.
With the loss of Chris Boucher, obviously the 6-foot-2 guard will not replace his teammate much in the blocked shots column. However, Pritchard has elevated his defense since Boucher’s loss. In fact, P2 is averaging two steals per game without CB on the floor, up from his season average (1.2).
Pritchard’s scoring is a huge boost to the offense. However, if he has a repeat of the Rhode Island performance, Oregon may not survive the first half against Michigan. In 31 minutes against the Rams, Pritchard registered just five points on 1-for-6 shooting from the floor, alongside 0-for-2 from 3-point territory.
The Pac-12 Tournament finale saw the freshman struggle with just one point in the Ducks’ 3-point loss, 83-80, to Arizona. Pritchard was 0-for-3 from the floor, but we can chalk that disaster up to stress after the loss of Boucher the same day.
Filling the CB gap will not be easy, but Payton started on the right foot with 18 points against No. 14 Iona in Oregon’s first round win of the NCAA Tournament. Friday, he was 6-for-10 from the field, and more importantly 4-for-7 from beyond the arc in 32 minutes of action. Another performance like this and the Ducks could be headed to the Elite Eight.
He has the confidence, no doubt about it. The Oregonian has the range offensively to take over a game when necessary. He averaged 14.0 PPG in two contests against UCLA when the Ducks were trailing and in desperate need of big buckets.
When watching him play on a daily basis, the “it” factor is clear and present within Pritchard. He has a way of getting through the lane untouched, then finishes acrobatically with spin off the glass. One would be remiss to overlook his talent.
Before I get ahead of myself, all focus is on Michigan this week. The freshman will be asked to do more scoring on the offensive end, while sharing the basketball at the same rate. When an opportunity presents itself, Pritchard must snatch it. He is the key to victory outside of Oregon’s big boys.
We know one thing heading into Thursday, this moment is NOT too big for the freshman. He, like Brooks, is a born finisher.
No. 3 Oregon (31-5) will meet No. 7 Michigan (26-11) in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The third round of the Midwest region will tip at 4:09 p.m. PT on Thursday night from the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri.