KJ Pritchard thought he had his future figured out.
A lanky shooting guard in his junior year at Lawrence High, he began gaining interest from college basketball coaches thanks to his involvement in the Kansas City Run GMC AAU program. He never thought it would take him two more years and some life lessons to make it to his destination. And he didn’t know it would be not too far away, as a walk-on at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
A left knee injury as a junior knocked Pritchard off what he assumed would be a more typical path to the NCAA Division-I level. Doctors weren’t sure what had happened. All the frustrated guard knew was he didn’t feel totally healthy, and performing typical basketball moves became startlingly tasking. He wasn’t the only one who noticed, either. All of a sudden, college coaches seemed far less interested in making Pritchard a part of their program.
“Senior year,” Pritchard said, “things just weren’t going as planned.”
Preferring to play at the D-I level instead of going the small college or junior college routes, Pritchard and his family decided to find him a post-graduate preparatory school with a basketball program. They settled on Brewster Academy, in Wolfeboro, N.H. But even that fell through.
Finally, KJ’s father, Kevin Pritchard, made a call to a contact in the Boston area, and they found a place for the 2012 LHS graduate to play: more than 1,400 miles away from home, at Notre Dame Prep, in Fitchburg, Mass.
Pritchard had lived in Lawrence most of his life, except for some time in the Pacific Northwest when his dad worked in the Portland Trail Blazers’ front office. New England’s dense city structures felt nothing like the wide-open plains of the Midwest. The greater Boston area seemed like another planet compared to Lawrence.
“It was a major culture shock for me,” Pritchard said.
The hardest part of his transition was living in an air-conditioner-less, heater-less “mini-mansion” with 19 other basketball players he didn’t know. Pritchard was the first to arrive in September 2012, and picked out the nicest looking bedroom he could find to share with two other roommates, but that didn’t make it feel like home.
In some part of his mind, Pritchard knew he could play at Notre Dame Prep and move on to a college program, but an immature attitude about his situation, stemming from his lack of comfort, affected not only his countenance but his on-court effectiveness.
“I just didn’t want to be there,” Pritchard recalled. “I wanted to come home.”
Once the season started, the former Lion didn’t play much. When he returned to Lawrence for Thanksgiving break disgruntled about the direction of his basketball career, he got some inspirational advice from his mother, Shea: “You have to go hard every day, no matter what you’re doing,” he shared, “if it’s an individual workout, if it’s weights, if you’re playing in a huge game.”
That talk seemed to be a turning point for Pritchard, and when he got back to Notre Dame, coach Ryan Hurd saw a different player. The coach, who had his own discussions with the 6-foot-5, 170-pound two-guard, told Pritchard from the day he showed up that he trusted him.
“He understood the game better than the guys he was playing with,” Hurd said, “and he had to step up and assert himself as a leader on the floor.”
Confidence, the coach added, changed Pritchard, and the more success he experienced, the more he ran with it. Soon, Pritchard started for the Crusaders. He took on a different mentality, too.
“There were so many talented kids around me,” Pritchard said, “I didn’t have to score 25 points or even 10 points a game.”
Accordingly, he transformed his basketball persona to meet Notre Dame’s needs, and became a leading defender and spot-up three-point shooter. When Hurd saw what the Lawrence product had become, he scratched his head thinking about his previous struggles. Pritchard turned into the guy who always seemed to take a game-changing charge and emerged as a three-point marksman, too — hitting eight in one game and 17 in a three-game stretch.
Hurd said long-range accuracy could get Pritchard playing time at UMKC. The program’s first-year coach, Kareem Richardson, agreed. The former Louisville assistant knew about Pritchard through recruiting the KC Run GMC program and communicating with its coach, LJ Goolsby.
“He can shoot the basketball,” Richardson said of Pritchard, “and that was something that was intriguing, and a need on our ball club.”
Pritchard, who last week underwent a procedure to help him recover from the previously undiagnosed tear across (not through) the patellar tendon in his left knee, hopes to work himself into the UMKC rotation once he is healthy and cleared for basketball activities in about three months. Taking a red-shirt season, though, hasn’t been ruled out at this point.
When Pritchard is back on the court, Richardson said he’ll have a chance to earn playing time, and the staff will continue to evaluate whether to make him a scholarship player in the future.
“Like I told all our guys, our culture will be based off of rebounding, defense and tremendous effort. As long as he’s healthy he’ll have every opportunity to showcase that,” Richardson said. “In my mind, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a scholarship guy or you’re a walk-on. If you display those things, you’ll be able to play.”
Admittedly more mature now than upon his arrival at Notre Dame, Pritchard finds himself more driven, too. He is finally spending more time in the weight room and he wants to prove he belongs at UMKC by going harder than he ever has before.
“I’ll find my way onto the court somehow,” he said.