With the firing of football head coach Mark Helfrich and the loss to Oregon State, one of the most difficult chapters in the recent history of Oregon Ducks athletics draws to a close. Meanwhile, the basketball season drives forward.
A month into the season, the Ducks lack a win over a ranked team or a team likely to make the NCAA tournament. But they have won their last four games. While they are likely feeling a boost from the return of preseason All-American Dillon Brooks, the quicker-than-expected development and impact of new freshman Payton Pritchard has certainly played a role in the mini-turnaround as well.
When all is said and done, Pritchard may go down as the best basketball player ever to come out of an Oregon high school. Certainly the speculation has already begun, with some declaring him the best since recent NBA champion and former UCLA star Kevin Love. While the list of top Oregon high school players is surprisingly impressive, what makes Pritchard’s case unique (and a source of local pride) is that he stayed in state to play basketball at the University of Oregon.
The best word to describe Pritchard’s time at West Linn is dominance. In an interview with Oregonlive.com writer Andrew Nemec, Pritchard’s high school coach Eric Viuhkola spoke about his work ethic. “What makes Payton special is that he’s an above average athlete, not an elite athlete, who made himself into one of the best players in the country just through sheer determination, perseverance and skill.” In four years, he had four state titles and three 6A Player of the Year awards.
There is an overused saying in sports: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Pritchard is the result of what happens when talent works hard. As a four-year varsity player he averaged 18 points per game and nearly seven assists. His greatest ability was not as a scorer or a distributor, but being whatever his team needed to win a game on any given night. In one senior-year matchup Pritchard scored 45 points. In another contest he had nine assists. In the big games, he had some of his best performances. In three state championship games in three years, he scored 21, 29 and 25 points, with numerous assists and rebounds.
Pritchard’s accomplishments and talent led him to a top-50 overall recruit ranking and the coveted four-star label. One of his greatest strengths is his ball handling, a basic skill he honed over hours of dribbling drills during high school to the point that his hands bled. This skill is highly desired and brought attention from colleges all over the country. An initial commitment to Oklahoma stung the Ducks, but when he de-committed and signed with Oregon the stage was set for a national championship pursuit.
Pritchard’s work ethic and ability will help his team win. While he was expected to be a contributor during his freshman season, he quickly showed his value to the team. In the win against Army to open the season he scored 15 points. During the Ducks’ loss to Georgetown he led the team in points (18) and steals (four) while coming off the bench. He has made it into the starting lineup the past three games, and is averaging 28 minutes of playing time.
As is the case with every freshman, there is a lot of development taking place. Against Baylor he only made one of his six shot attempts and he had four of his 16 turnovers on the year in one game. Speaking of Pritchard’s turnovers, Coach Dana Altman told the media, ”you can’t have that.”
When asked about playing in big games after the loss to Georgetown, Pritchard told the media, “You can’t take any possession off. Any possession can turn the game around.” Pritchard’s competitive drive to always be better boils down to winning. Asked about what it felt like to hit some crucial three pointers to put his team in contention to win the Georgetown game after being down 17 points at half, he responded “…we want to win, as a team. Nobody likes losing.” He called the Baylor loss “embarrassing” and in regards to his adaptation to college basketball, said “I have a great team around me to help me out with it.”
While he has made some mistakes, scored inconsistently and had some issues with foul trouble, Pritchard does not look like a freshman on the court. He drives the ball with confidence, and penetrates defenses with an effectiveness that is beyond his years. Pritchard, as he did at West Linn, will lead the University of Oregon basketball program to a lot of wins.
Top Photo By Craig Strobeck
Disclaimer: Readers: Every writer on FishDuck.com is allowed to express their opinion in their articles. However, articles do not represent the views of the other writers, editors, coaching consultants, management, or the principals of FishDuck.com. Charles Fischer