Kerry Eggers on Sports: Ducks' star guard from West Linn has matured, competed and won

PMG FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Senior Payton Pritchard has led the way at Oregon for four years after winning four state titles at West Linn High.EUGENE —¬†When the final game is in the books and Payton Pritchard's college basketball career is complete, he'll go down as one of Oregon's all-time greats.

Going into Saturday's 6 p.m. showdown with Arizona in Tucson, the Ducks' senior point guard from West Linn is Oregon's career leader in assists (638), second in steals (207) and fifth in scoring (1,828), a point behind No. 4 Greg Ballard. Pritchard also is seventh in 3-point shots made (270) and joins Ronnie Lee as the only UO players with at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 500 assists in a career. Pritchard is the first Pac-12 player with 1,500 points, 600 assists and 500 rebounds.

Pritchard was the only freshman starter on the team that went 33-6 and reached the Final Four in 2017. He was the Most Outstanding Player of the 2019 Pac-12 tournament, in which the Ducks went 4-0 to win and qualify for the NCAA Tournament, ultimately advancing to the Sweet 16. Pritchard's career win-loss record is 101-39, making him the winningest Duck in history.

Pinch yourself, Payton Pritchard. It's been quite a ride.

"It's amazing through the four years what I've been able to accomplish with the help of my teammates," said Pritchard, who turned 22 on Jan. 28. "It's just a blessing."

This season, Pritchard ranks second in the Pac-12 in scoring at 19.4 points pe game, leads in assists (5.6) and is fifth in steals (1.6) while shooting .462 from the field and .395 from 3-point range. He's the odds-on favorite to claim the conference Player of the Year Award and a candidate for the John Wooden Award as the nation's premier player.

The latter, Pritchard said, "would be a dream come true — everything I've worked for. I'm very grateful to be in this position. I know all my hard work is paying off and has put me in the position I'm in today."

Pritchard might have gone to football. He was the quarterback on the West Linn's freshman team, and a good one.

"If you ask my dad, he probably thinks I'd have been better at football," Pritchard said with a smile. "He didn't want me to quit, but my love was for basketball. I had to make a choice because I was traveling so much. It's hard to play both at a high level, so I stuck with basketball."

Terry Pritchard played tight end at Oklahoma and, yes, he had mixed emotions about his son giving up football.

"I truly believe Payton was better at football (than basketball)," said the senior Pritchard, founder and director of the West Linn-based Team FAST youth basketball program. "He started doing the USA Basketball stuff and then he had to choose.

"I wanted him to play all the sports, but he decided he wanted to play just basketball. He made a good choice, but he was really good at football. (Ex-West Linn High football coach) Chris Miller talked to him about going out his junior year, but it worked out for the best."

From his freshman year, Pritchard was starting point guard as the Lions pulled off four straight Class 6A championships. As a senior, he averaged 23.6 points. 6.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 steals to win the state's Gatorade Player of the Year award for the second straight year. Pritchard was a three-time unanimous all-state tournament selection.

"It was crazy to win four in a row," he said. "Every year was a different emotion. How we ran the table like that and were able to kill the competition ... it's something I'll always remember. We have a tight brotherhood. It was a joy."

Pritchard — charitably listed on the Oregon roster at 6-2 and 190 pounds — has made himself bigger and stronger and a better player through a work regimen that began when he was in eighth grade. By the time he was in high school, he had a routine down while working with his father or a trainer.

"On game days, I'd go in the mornings and do Vertimax (speed and vertical) and weight stuff," Pritchard said. "On non-game days, I'd go in the morning and do a bunch of shots and moves, go to school, have practice right after, and I'd probably lift again and maybe shoot a little bit after that. At night, if my body wasn't worn down, I'd go get more shots up and do some ballhandling."

Pritchard never got tired of the routine.

"I've done training with a lot of kids," the senior Pritchard said. "You put some of them on a drill to learn something new and, after not very long, they want to go on to something else. Payton would stay on the drill until he could do it right. He's very good at repetition."

When he was doing drills and taking shots and making moves, Pritchard would imagine he was going against Stephen Curry or Chris Paul or Tony Parker or Damian Lillard.

"It was like I was playing (against somebody) and beating them," Pritchard said. "To be honest, I did it because I loved it. I enjoyed working out. I loved doing all that work, because it's a joy to be better than your competition."

Nobody else was taking on this kind of work load. Was that the point?

"Definitely," Pritchard said. "It's a thrill to know you're out-working everybody. When people see it and know they can't do it themselves, you have an edge on them."

Pritchard also wore out the basket in the driveway to his home.

"My wife (Melissa) and I would be laying in bed and Payton would be out there shooting," his father said. "You'd hear the basketball against the garage. 'What in the world is that?'"

Payton comes from an athletic family, and not just on the paternal side. Melissa was a gymnast at Oklahoma. Younger sister Lexie is a sophomore guard at Santa Clara.

"My parents have helped me do life in general," he said. "They've showed me what it takes — the hard work, the dedication and the sacrifice that has allowed me to get to where I am today."

During his junior year, Pritchard verbally committed to his parents' alma mater. A few months later, he had a change of heart and signed with Oregon over offers from such schools as Kansas, Louisville, Indiana, Michigan, Villanova, Gonzaga and Florida State.

"I have a lot of family in Oklahoma," he said. "On my (recruiting) visit, it felt like home. I was actually planning on leaving high school early. I wasn't going to do my senior year. I was going to graduate early and head to Oklahoma.

"Then I decided I didn't want to rush it. I wanted to have my senior year to finish out with my boys. And I saw Oregon and the steps they were making. I knew I had a chance to come in and start and be with a great team and was going to have people here who were going to push me to be my best. It was ultimately what I wanted — the beauty of being able to stay home and letting my family come watch me all the time."

Though Sooners at heart, his parents applauded the decision.

"Oklahoma rolled out the red carpet (on the recruiting trip)," Terry Pritchard said. "It was quite an experience. He was 16 at the time. It's tough for a kid when you're getting wooed like that, and it's a great place to go to school.

"But he ultimately decided he wanted to stay close to home, and we're happy about it. We've hardly missed a game. We wouldn't have been able to do that if he'd gone to Oklahoma."

Five games into his career at Oregon, Pritchard was a starter on a team that went on to tie for the Pac-12 title and reach the Final Four.

"We had great leadership and great talent — four dudes who were NBA-ready (Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey, Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher)," he said. "It was great to come in there and play my role. I was a young'un at the time. I had so much growth in that year."

The Final Four was at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

"There's nothing like playing in a football stadium in front of (77,000)," Pritchard said. "It takes like five minutes just to run out to the court from the locker room. It's like a parade going on all day. It was amazing. We'd like nothing more than to get back there this year."

Pritchard's consecutive start streak is now at 136, a testament to his toughness, staying power and good fortune.

"I'll have nagging injuries all the time, but once I lace my shoes up and get out on that court, my mind doesn't think about it," he said. "I had a heel injury the last 10 or 11 games last season and it never went away. We just played through it. But I've never had a serious injury."

Pritchard shares a love for competition with Oregon coach Dana Altman.

"Dana is a tough coach," he said. "He's gonna push you. Ultimately, all he wants to do is win. That's the type of coach I want to play for. He's not going to take it easy if you're up 20 or down 20. He's always going to believe in a comeback.

"He doesn't discipline us hard. He's not a huge screamer. He's not a cusser. He's going to talk to you the right way. He's always respectful. He always talks to everybody when he comes into the gym. But you know his intensity. You know what he wants — he wants to win, and the guys follow."

Pritchard has had some great individual moments, perhaps highlighted by the fadeaway 3-pointer to beat Washington in overtime this season. He finishes his career with a 4-0 record against the Huskies in Seattle.

"But my most proud moment was when we won the Pac-12 tournament last year," he said. "With everything that team went through, all the drama, the ups and downs, and then to go on a winning streak and make the NCAA Tournament and the Sweet 16. ... For us to fight back and do what we did was amazing."

Pritchard got a taste of international experience after his freshman year, when he won a bronze medal with the U.S. U-19 team in the 2017 World Cup at Cairo, Egypt, and was named to the all-tournament team. After his junior season, he went through the NBA draft process but opted to return to school.

"What I took away was that I could increase my stock in the draft and have another great year and become a better player and more NBA-ready," he said.

Pritchard is projected to be a second-round draft pick in June. He'll complete his degree in general social science this winter, then spend the spring preparing for his shot at the NBA. Even if he doesn't make it, his parents are thrilled with what he has achieved playing the game he loves.

"We're awfully proud of him," his father said. "Toward the last half of last year, he has matured and handled things better. Every year, he has played with a new group of guys. Chemistry-wise, that's tough. Coach Altman has done a great job of getting those guys to play together each year.

"Payton just loves to compete. When he's doing that, he's happy. When he's off the court, he's big into family. He'll come home every chance he gets. Other than when he's working out, he just wants to lay around. He has a good head on his shoulders. We're happy with the progress he's made with the maturity level. We couldn't ask for more."

And Pritchard said he feels the same way about his four years at Oregon.

"It's been everything I wished for, with the basketball, the social aspect, the academics," he said. "I've loved being in college."

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