Eugene, Ore. • Rylan Jones remembers the 2016-17 season well.
At the time, the University of Utah point guard would have been a sophomore at Logan High School. His father, Chris, was newly hired to Larry Krystkowiak’s Utes staff as its director of basketball operations after spending the previous eight seasons at Utah State.
With his father now a Pac-12 assistant, Jones probably was paying more attention to the Power Five conference than he had previously. That season, Payton Pritchard caught his attention.
“I’ve looked up to him since he’s been in the Pac-12,” Jones said Sunday night after a spirited duel vs. Pritchard as part of an 80-62 win for No. 17 Oregon at Matthew Knight Arena. “When my dad first moved down here, it was [Pritchard’s] freshman year, and he went to the Final Four with a really good team. I’ve watched him ever since, and I’m trying to be as good as him one day.”
Postgame, Pritchard tweeted at Jones, “Love the way you compete! You have a bright future @rylanjones15 keep pushing!!”
Pritchard, a four-star recruit and the headliner of a top-25 recruiting class in 2016, started 35 of the 39 games he played in as a freshman in 2017, but he was far from the headliner of that Midwest Regional champion. Pritchard was part of a seven-deep rotation that included a handful of future pros, most notably Dillon Brooks, a Ducks junior at the time who has experienced a breakout third season this winter with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Still, Pritchard was a day-one contributor for the 33-win 2017 Ducks, something that did not escape Jones’ attention.
“The confidence and the swagger he played with, he was just ready for the moment, always ready for the big stage,” said Jones, a freshman. “He just competes every night. He’s an extremely hard worker, and I’m trying to model myself after him.”
Pritchard outplayed Jones on Sunday, finishing with a game-high 25 points, while leading a first-half barrage of perimeter shot-making. Jones, though, as he tends to do most nights, played tough. His 18 points came on 5-for-11 shooting, including 4-for-8 from deep. The difference between the two stat lines, though, is that Jones was also charged with helping to defend Pritchard, who will leave Eugene as one of the most-decorated scoring guards the Pac-12 has ever seen.
As Krystkowiak spoke postgame, the topic turned to Pritchard vs. Jones, a matchup pitting the rare four-year, high-major star and the precocious newcomer who, unlike Pritchard when he was a freshman, is being asked to carry a heavy burden for an awfully young team.
The Utah coach harked back to Pritchard’s freshman days, when his primary job was to help get guys like Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell the ball.
Krystkowiak saw enough of the younger Pritchard four years ago that he believes there are similarities between him and Jones, which can’t be construed as anything but a compliment.
“Rylan’s got to put a little meat on his bones, but he has the same type of moxie, and I was proud of his performance tonight,” the coach said. “They’re heady, really savvy, moxie guards that play really hard. They don’t force the game; they make the play the game presents to them.
“Stature is not far off. Payton wasn't as strong as he is now. I just think it’s a pretty good comparison, and it’s a good person for Rylan to look up to and want to be like.”
“There’s a lot of similarities there,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said. “Payton’s gotten stronger. In four years, I’m sure he will also, and that will mean a lot to his game. I’m really impressed; he’s a really good player. He’ll be a pain in our rear for three years, I know that. He’s tough, talented, competitive and has really good vision. He’ll be tough to deal with.”
With Pritchard at the wheel and a host of quality pieces filling in around him, Oregon has a lineup capable of a Final Four run. Whether that comes to fruition, Pritchard will be in demand by teams wanting him to work out for them ahead of the 2020 NBA Draft.
Authoritative ESPN NBA Draft reporter Jonathan Givony currently has Pritchard projected No. 56 for the June event. Whether he gets drafted, or is snatched up by a team as a priority undrafted free agent in the minutes after the NBA Draft ends, Pritchard will have a legitimate chance to crack an NBA roster come summertime and into the fall.
With that, Krystkowiak is absolutely correct. Pritchard is an excellent role model for his freshman point guard.
“Payton Pritchard is what college basketball stands for, because it’s rare to have a kid like that stay for all four years,” Krystkowiak said. “Rylan is getting an opportunity to play against some elite point guards, and I know that’s sort of baptism by fire, having to go out there and play against them, but that’s what he signed up for.”