PULLMAN – Two weeks ago, Isaac Bonton got the best of an old AAU acquaintance, hustling back to stuff UCLA’s Jules Bernard in the second half of Washington State’s game against the Bruins before Bonton’s late scoring flurry lifted the Cougars to a comeback win in overtime.
This week, the Washington State guard and Portland native gets to relive another portion of his AAU upbringing – the part that so regularly featured Oregon point guard Payton Pritchard.
Pritchard, a senior who’s steering the eighth-ranked team in the country, is a West Linn, Oregon, native and someone Bonton considers both a friend and a foe.
In the seventh grade it was the former, as Bonton and Pritchard teamed up with a few other future collegians on Inner City Players, a Portland-based AAU club. Thursday night, for about 2 1/2 hours, it’ll be the latter, as Pritchard’s Ducks (14-3, 3-1) face Bonton’s Cougars (10-7, 1-3) for a 6 p.m. Pac-12 game at Beasley Coliseum.
“Coming from Portland, a lot of people overlook Oregon and the talent we have there,” Bonton said. “So, Payton’s another guy that not only did his thing in high school, but transitioned it to the college game and on a big stage, too, so it’s been fun to watch, obviously.
“I’m rooting for him, but now we’re playing against each other, so it’s time to compete now.”
The guards constantly crossed paths at a young age and apparently never stopped – even now, as Pac-12 guards who’ve been relied on to carry much of the offensive load for their respective teams. Pritchard is the conference’s third-leading scorer, at 19.2 points per game, and second in assists at 5.9 per game. Bonton’s 13.5 ppg rank second at WSU and 16th in the conference, while his team-leading 3.2 assists are 13th in the Pac-12.
Bonton estimates he was in early elementary school when he and Pritchard first encountered each other, as promising young tykes just getting their feet wet in Portland’s competitive club basketball scene.
“I think it might have been around first grade,” Bonton said. “I was really young. (That’s) when I started taking basketball seriously and we grew up playing against each other in high school, middle school and AAU and stuff like that.”
Neither had much of an identity on the basketball court as first-graders who were simply learning the basics, but because they’d constantly bump into each other at various youth showcases and AAU tournaments, Bonton watched Pritchard grow into the heady flood general who’s on the verge of taking the Ducks to their third NCAA Tournament in four years.
“Obviously, he’s a lot better now, as we grow up and everything,” Bonton said. “But playing style, it’s pretty similar from what I’ve seen and everything. He’s always been, like I said, a high IQ player, good point guard, runs his team well. So, I’m familiar with his game.”
That, of course, doesn’t give a leg up for the Cougars, who come into Thursday’s game as 11-point underdogs, needing probably their strongest defensive effort of the year to knock off an Oregon team that lists the sixth-best offensive efficiency rating in the country, according to KenPom, at 114.7.
Pritchard, the seasoned point guard, is the leader of the flock and is close to breaking the UO career record for assists and steals.
“He could make a push for national player of the year and they do so many things out of his hands,” WSU coach Kyle Smith said. “He reminds me (of) a cross between Steve Nash and T.J. McConnell. He’s kind of a bowling ball that gets into the paint all the time, can really drill it. Good passer, good leader. We’ve got to do a good job there.
“No, you’re not going to stop him for 40 minutes, but definitely just hope to slow him down and do a good job there.”
Bonton may not be Pritchard’s primary defender, but he could have the assignment on switches or when the Ducks are in transition. Good thing it’s one he’s familiar with.
Playing against Pritchard may not have been as helpful as playing alongside him, in 2007 on the Portland Inner City Players. Other future college players on the team included Oregon’s Anthony Mathis and Portland State’s Deante Strickland, who was shot to death in Portland last August.
Bonton attended high school at Portland’s Parkrose from his sophomore year to senior year, while Pritchard spent four years at West Linn High. Bonton holds the OSAA 5A record for points scored in a state tournament, with 86, while Pritchard has the 6A mark for 3-pointers in a tournament.
“We were in different conferences,” Bonton said, “but we got to play against other in fall league, summer league matchups and we played in showcases against each other and all that. We’re really familiar.”
Though Bonton once envisioned himself in an Oregon uniform and grew up watching Ducks teams coached by Ernie Kent, admiring players such as Tajuan Porter and Brandon Lincoln, the only in-state program to offer was the University of Portland. Bonton also frequented open gyms at Oregon State, which visits Pullman on Saturday.
“Obviously, I’ve looked at (Oregon) as a school I’d want to go to one day just because it’s the hometown,” he said. “Other than that, it’s just any other school.”
Regarding Oregon, Bonton describes the Ducks as “an athletic team” and “they’ve got length and athleticism like any team in the Pac-12 and they’re more experienced so they know how to stick their games.
“That’s going to be a challenge for us because we’re a younger team and less experienced team. But I think we’re going to be ready.”
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