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Payton Pritchard: Oregon Folk Hero Now Shining on World Stage

Pritchard is from the Portland area.

NCAA Basketball: Stanford at Oregon Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

West Linn native and former Oregon Duck star Payton Pritchard is two wins away from an NBA Championship with the Boston Celtics.

The backup point guard has completed the difficult task of locking down a rotation spot on a championship-contending team, one that’s on the brink of taking the whole thing home. While he hasn’t dazzled in his time off the bench during Boston’s playoff run, he’s created an impact.

He’s paced the second-unit with his ball-handling and facilitating. He’s competed like hell on defense and the boards, not allowing teams to render him unplayable for his lack of size. And he’s knocked down his shot when it’s come.

This postseason his averages of 5.4 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 36.9 percent three-point shooting are a testament to his steadiness. But he’s also come through for big moments.

In Game 2 of Boston’s opening round series against Brooklyn, Pritchard scored 8 of his 10 points in a huge fourth quarter, helping the Celtics overtake the Nets 114-107

In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the defending champs, Pritchard found his rhythm when his team needed it most. He popped off for 14 points, five rebounds, and three assists on 5-7 shooting in a decisive 109-81 blowout. The night included back-to-back beauties from deep that all but killed Milwaukee’s chances.

Celtics star Jaylen Brown and NBA great Magic Johnson have both described Pritchard as a “hero” and he’s been a pest even to NBA all-time three-point shooter Stephen Curry. In more ways than one, the 2022 Playoffs have been a resounding answer to any lingering doubts about whether the 24-year-old could become a mainstay in the best basketball league on Earth.

In just his second year, Pritchard has looked unafraid of the brightest lights. That’s probably because he’s so prepared.

Long before he was feeding the ball to superstars like Jayson Tatum, or drilling step-back three-pointers over elite defenders like Jrue Holiday, or chasing Curry around the three-point line, Pritchard was busy establishing his place as an Oregon basketball legend with a folklorish work ethic and tenacity for winning.

Now on basketball’s biggest stage, he has a chance to not just grow his Oregon legend, but etch his place into the lore of the sport.

Payton Pritchard is to work ethic and winning what Paul Bunyan was to generosity and ax-chopping.

He’s a modern-day Oregon folktale marching along his storied path from West Linn, to Eugene, to Boston, and now possibly the NBA mountaintop.

“By his junior or senior year, his work ethic was already legendary,” said Andrew Nemec, who covered Oregon prep sports and recruiting at Oregon Live during a 10-year-tenure that overlapped with Pritchard’s high school career.

If you’re familiar with Pritchard, you’ve probably heard the stories.

There was the insane, around-the-clock training regimen that started his mornings before 5:30 A.M. and turned lunch into a plyometrics session. The relentless ball-handling drills with a weighted Wilson that bloodied his hands. The eighth grade decision to homeschool for a year in order to train more. One-on-one battles with NBA veteran Steve Blake as a young teen.

And of course, the 96 wins, three state player of the year awards, and four consecutive OSAA 6A State titles at West Linn High from 2013 to 2016.

For the latest generation of Oregonians, Pritchard is “The One.”

He joins a historic short list of high school greats who made it to NBA success. Whittle down that list to small guards and it becomes almost impossibly exclusive.

There’s Damon Stoudamire and Terrell Brandon in the early 90s. Danny Ainge (a generous inclusion at 6’4’’) in the 70s. And now Pritchard in the 2010s.

Some athletes are endowed with the fate of greatness early on. Their parents are professional athletes. Or they possess the natural gift of freakish athleticism and giant-beanstalk size that makes exceptionalism their destiny.

But NBA inevitability was never the case for Pritchard.

He had the benefit of two D-1 athletes as parents to help show him the way. His dad, Terry, played tight end at the University of Oklahoma and his mom, Melissa, was a gymnast for the Sooners. Yet he was never elite in terms of athleticism or size. Pritchard entered high school at 5’9’’ and only ever made it to 6’1.’’

“I talked to I don’t know how many coaches,” said Nemec, who left Oregon Live in April to become the national director of recruiting at SB Live, a national outlet. “[They] were like, ‘Well, he’s great. He’s got handles, but he’s not big enough. He’s not quick enough. He’s not going to make it.’”

At every level, Pritchard has proved doubters wrong and ascended higher through sheer determination and skill. That’s what makes his journey so special. His supernatural talent is the grind.

“From the neck up, he’s a 1-percenter,” said Eric Viuhkola, Pritchard’s head coach at West Linn, in a 2020 interview with Oregon Live. “And that’s in the whole world.”

Pritchard’s conquest of Oregon high school basketball was like the arrival of a distant asteroid. He was a fiery ball barreling closer at a billion miles an hour, but at first you had to squint to see it. Save for those paying attention in West Linn, the potential power was not understood.

As a toothy-grinned freshman still growing into his frame, Pritchard guided the Lions to their first title in 17 years. It was a nail-biting run that saw West Linn win their final three games by a combined margin of 6 points. His season stats were solid at 9.6 points and 7.1 assists per game, but he wasn’t the best player on the floor every night, or debatably on his own team.

By his senior year, Pritchard had mastered the state. His scoring ballooned to 23.6 points per game and a stacked Lions roster rolled over their final three tournament opponents by a margin of 73 points. They opened the title game on a 23-0 run.

“That was a fitting end because that’s really what his career was by about his junior season,” Nemec said. “...By the end, nobody could really challenge him.”

Where Pritchard begins challenges and where he finishes them are wildly different locations. That type of evolution is central to his makeup. It’s an obsession to improve as much as it is a necessary adaptation to continue playing the game he loves. The next level, at least the highest level, has never been guaranteed.

“That young man — of every kid I ever covered — squeezed out every ounce of potential he had in his body,” Nemec said.

That insatiable drive led him to major college ball at the University of Oregon where his career was again defined by winning and ceiling-raising evolution.

Year one saw him capture the starting point guard spot, a 31-4 record, and the program’s first Final Four appearance in 78 years. But his role was first and foremost to facilitate to future NBA talent like Dillon Brooks, Jordan Bell, and Chris Boucher. In the era of one-and-done, he was far off from a potential NBA career himself.

So he forged himself into an electrifying 20-point-per-game scorer with unlimited range his senior year, taking home the national Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award.

The No. 13 Ducks were rolling at 24-7 before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season. Even with those last pages missing, Pritchard ended his college career as a surefire draft pick and left Eugene as the winningest player in school history.

Looking at his legacy, Pritchard isn’t the most talented player in Oregon’s history — that title would almost assuredly go to five-time NBA All-Star Kevin Love, who was a national phenom the second he entered Lake Oswego in 2003. But he’s the most decorated player on the All-Time list,

And he’s practically the only one who chose to stick around for college.

Almost all the other greats left for greener pastures. Love to UCLA. His formidable foe Kyle Singler and Mike Dunleavy Jr. bolted for Duke. Stoudamire played at Arizona, Ainge at BYU. Terrence Jones was lured to Kentucky and Terrence Ross went up North to Washington.

Terrell Brandon is the only other great to attend college in-state, but his two-year stint at UO wasn’t nearly as grand as Pritchard’s. Those four years in Eugene are what differentiates Pritchard from his fellow statesmen on the Mt. Rushmore of Oregon hoopers.

“I think Payton’s legacy, in the end,” Nemec said, “will mean the most to the state of Oregon of the modern players.”

It’s clear Pritchard has a reverence for his roots.

He backed out of a commitment to the University of Oklahoma because he preferred to be in driving distance from the suburb that raised him. To this day, his Twitter bio still proclaims, “just a kid from West Linn.”

But like most cinematic stories, at some point the protagonist must leave home. They grow too big for their comfortable surroundings. They must venture to the big city or take an odyssey to a foreign land and see how they fare against the world.

This is the final challenge Pritchard finds today in Boston, in the royal house that Auerbach and Russell and Bird built.

In an instance of poetic coincidence — or maybe regional allegiance — Ainge was the Boston general manager who selected Pritchard with the 26th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Now the sacred franchise is back in the Finals for the first time in more than a decade, further proof that where Pritchard goes, winning supernaturally follows.

The NBA is full of “Ones.” Individuals who’ve all climbed the peak and carry the banner of their respective cities and states. Athletes who have similar origin stories to Pritchard’s, complete with early alarm clocks and millions of jump shots. In a league of this caliber, Pritchard’s excellence and drive — though still exceptional to most of his peers — is less novel.

That can all change on a platform like the NBA Finals.

So far in this series, Pritchard hasn’t scored in double figures. In Game 4, he only logged 10 minutes and scored 1 point. But in the Finals — where everything is magnified and destined to live forever — one signature moment can make a player immortal to the game. Games 5 through 7 are golden opportunities for Pritchard to take his local legend to worldly new heights.

John Paxon and Steve Kerr come to mind. The ball found both of them for title-clinching daggers in Game 6s during Michael Jordan’s dynastic run in Chicago. Paxon in ‘93 and Kerr in ‘97. While neither of them are stars, decades later they’re still remembered.

Pritchard is a storybook sports figure worthy of that epic role. He’s more than the tireless worker. He’s a 21st Century case study in sacrifice, self-belief, and the sometimes-maniacal pursuit of greatness.

If Brown or Tatum are pressured late, fate may find the kid from Oregon open behind the arc.

He’s worked his entire life to take that shot.