While the rest of the country seems to have closed down, the world is opening up for Payton Pritchard in a brand-new way.
Pritchard, a West Linn High School graduate who led the Lions boys basketball team to four straight Class 6A state championships, recently completed his senior season at the University of Oregon and is racing toward his future in the National Basketball Association.
Pritchard, a 6-foot-3 point guard who led the Ducks to a Pac-12 championship this year, just finished his college career as one of the most decorated players in Oregon history. Now slotted as an early second-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft — set for June 25 — Pritchard was recently named a consensus first-team All-American after earlier being selected a first-team All-American by the Associated Press and Sporting News, being named Pac-12 Player of the Year, and on Tuesday, April 7, winning the 2020 Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
"I think now, leaving after four years, I'm the most ready mentally, physically and just basketball-wise for the NBA," Pritchard said. "I think I'm in a great spot and I'm going to continue to work, and whatever team drafts me, they're going to get somebody who's going to work their butt off and give them everything they've got."
His legendary work ethic certainly paid dividends during his senior season at Oregon. Pritchard led the Ducks to a Pac-12 title, a 24-7 overall record and the 13th ranking in the country; along the way, he started all 31 games for the Ducks, averaging a career-high (and team-best) 20.5 points per game, a career-high 4.3 rebounds, a career-high 5.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
"I just think (the difference) was my confidence. I put in a lot I work over the summer at the end of my junior year, I went on a nice little 10-game run there and kind of got my confidence back," Pritchard said.
Battling a 'down spot'
That 10-game run — the Ducks won 10 of their last 11 contests in 2019 — followed what Pritchard described as a "down spot." That stretch saw Pritchard question himself and his Oregon team lose nine of 16 games over a two-month span.
As painful as that stretch was, it also taught Pritchard a lot about himself, taught him what he needed to do to get better and taught him how to lead his team.
"I was in kind of a down spot, but I found it and I figured some things out," he said. "I figured out that for this team to win, I had to be aggressive. I had to play my game and always be in attack mode."
In addition to the lessons he learned there, Pritchard continued to grow as he considered entering the 2019 NBA draft and as he participated in the Nike Skills Academy, an event that allows the nation's top high school players, top collegians and a handful of NBA players to compete against each other.
"I went through the NBA draft process and I heard some feedback and that was great exposure and experience for me to see that level and what it would take," Pritchard said. "And then I went to the Nike Skills Academy and I did really well there with NBA guys and college guys there — it just added to my confidence and kept it building. Going into the (2019-20) season, I was physically and mentally ready to go at everybody in my path and try to show them that I was the best player in the country."
Feeling the draft
Regarding the upcoming draft — different projections have Pritchard scheduled between the 45th and 52nd pick — Pritchard is determined to do what he always does. He's going to work, he's going to prepare, he's going to control the stuff he can control and let the rest take care of itself.
"I know I'm going to get drafted. I've been hearing a lot of great stuff so I'll just have to see how it goes. I've never been one to think 'I'm going to be in this spot or that spot,'" he said. "I went through (preparation for the draft) last year so I understand it … but now, I think I'm more ready and I'm excited to take the next steps."
A disappointing end
As exciting as Pritchard's senior season was, the end of Oregon's 2019-20 campaign was nothing but disappointing. The Ducks won the Pac-12 title with a 13-5 record, took the top seed into the Pac-12 tournament and believed they were ready for a long and successful run in the 2020 NCAA tournament.
But the Pac-12 tournament and NCAAs never happened — restrictions related to the spread of COVID-19 ended the Ducks' season before the team's Pac-12 tourney opener on March 12.
"It was definitely hard at first, but we know it was for reasons of safety and all that," Pritchard said. "It's tough … (because) I really thought we had a chance to win an NCAA Championship this year. We had all the pieces. Everyone was healthy and we were clicking at the right time and I thought we had a chance."
Pritchard's best team?
Indeed, Pritchard believes that this year's Oregon team had a chance to be the best of his four years, including the Ducks' Final Four team from 2016-17.
"I think we were very similar. Both teams had a lot of elite players," he said. "This year, like the Final Four team, I think we filled every position really well. I think that made us really dangerous and everyone knew their roles so I think it's very similar to that team.
"I think this year's team could have played with anyone. I think it would have been a good matchup."
His best decision
Now, with his senior season moving slowly from short-term to long-term memory, Pritchard is preparing for the draft, running, working on his overall fitness, diet, shooting and ballhandling, and trying to put his legacy into focus.
"It was the best decision of my life to go to Oregon and to stay all four years and to go through the ups and downs — I grew so much as a person," he said. "Oregon prepared me for life, too. I look back and I'm going to have so many good memories."
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