October 12, 2017
SAN FRANCISCO — Such is Oregon’s lack of program veterans that, Thursday at Pac-12 media day, one of the two players representing the Ducks was wearing a UO uniform for just the second time ever.
The first time, for graduate transfer Elijah Brown, was last week in Eugene, for the team’s picture day. That afternoon, Brown and six other newcomers to Dana Altman‘s team donned jerseys and shorts as Ducks. They at least took on the appearance of a team, before setting out to play like one over the next several months.
As the UO men go through that bonding process on the court and off, Altman will lean heavily on his one experienced veteran. Payton Pritchard is just a sophomore, but after starting 35 games at point guard during Oregon’s run to the Final Four last season, he’s the floor general, both literally and figuratively.
“He’s doing a great job,” said Brown, a transfer from New Mexico. “Obviously he’s very familiar with coach’s offense, and he’s real comfortable with the defensive sets. He’s not just a great player, but he’s got a lot of knowledge and has been a big help to us.”
Pritchard said Altman sat him down this offseason and let him know what being a leader would entail.
“He said he was going to be harder on me,” Pritchard said.
Wait. Harder? As if Altman — whose standard demeanor in practice is gruff and demanding — could be any more gruff or demanding?
Yes, Pritchard said, even harder. What’s more, the statement was “music to my ears,” he added.
“That’s what I want,” Pritchard said. “I think that’s going to make me a better player, and at the end of the day that’s what I want — to be the best player I can be.”
Pritchard is looking to build on his 7.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game last season. The West Linn native was Oregon’s sixth-leading scorer, and was third in the Pac-12 with 2.5 assists per turnover.
As a freshman, Altman said, Pritchard had “a lot of anxiety about making the jump. He’s such a competitor, and wants to be successful.”
But now, the reins seem to be off. Pritchard gained confidence helping the USA Men’s U19 team take bronze at the FIBA World Cup in Egypt over the summer. And he’s looking to let loose his game a bit more as a sophomore, after deferring to veterans last season.
When the Ducks need a big shot this season, they won’t have Dillon Brooks or Tyler Dorsey to turn to. Jordan Bell and Chris Boucher won’t be options in the post. Oregon added an infusion of new talent, Brown included. But Pritchard will make himself an option this season, too.
“Last year those guys were the leaders and took the big shots,” Pritchard said. “It’s a different role. This year I’m still going to distribute the ball and be the point guard, but be more aggressive. And that comes with having a year under my belt, knowing the college game better.”
The 2017-18 season begins for Oregon on Nov. 10, at home against Coppin State. Less than two months later, Pac-12 play begins, against Utah on Dec. 29. That’s seven weeks in which the Ducks will try to build chemistry and cohesion for another run at a conference title.
Altman has been so successful at molding rosters on short notice, conference media picked the Ducks to finish a respectable fourth. But Oregon has bigger goals. To achieve them, Pritchard’s presence will be vital in the coming weeks and months.
“We are expecting more from him in the ways of leadership, especially through November and December, until we get a lot of guys on the same page with what we’re doing,” Altman said. “I think he’s going to have a big role, a tremendous role of trying to get everybody on the same page.
“I think Payton will have a heck of a year. I really do.”