Why Taurean Prince Could Be In Line For A Breakout Year

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A good rule of thumb if you follow the NBA is to be careful how much you buy into players succeeding on tanking teams down the stretch of the season. Too often, these mini-leaps can come crashing down to earth the following year when everyone begins trying to win basketball games yet again.

I’m throwing that playbook out the window, along with any “don’t put too much stock into the preseason” warnings. When good process leads to good results, these performances can be indicators of a player on the verge of leveling up. When asked for individual award picks last week, I selected Taurean Prince to win the Most Improved Player award.

The Hawks handed the keys to Prince down the stretch. He saw his usage rate increase from 19.4 percent to 26.1 percent, a 35 percent jump. As a result, he demonstrated important growth in one key area.

Mike Zavagno

Notice that the percentage of Prince’s passes that led to potential assists increased from 13.6 percent to 18.8 percent. If Prince maintained his pre-All Star Break passing levels, we would have only expected him to average 4.8 potential assists in the second half. Instead, that number jumped to 6.7 potential assists per game.

I’m going to be honest, the tanking Hawks didn’t exactly find their way into my League Pass rotation often down the stretch last season. So, when I saw Prince uncork this pass in Atlanta’s preseason game against the San Antonio Spurs, my jaw hit the floor.

The Hawks scored 1.4 points per possession on 25 plays with Prince as the pick-and-roll ball handler in the preseason, a staggering number that trailed only Ben Simmons. Your “small sample size” alarms should be going off, but the process behind these possessions is what makes the output encouraging.

I like to break passing into levels. A Level One passer is someone who makes the correct but simple reads, think throwing a pocket pass to the rolling big man. Here’s an example of Prince making a typical Level One pass in a late-season tankapalooza against the Orlando Magic, in which he reads the drop big and threads a bounce pass to the rolling John Collins for highlight slam.

Level Two takes a bit more intuition. It’s the ability to make a pass ahead of the rotating defense or the ability to find an open shooter in the opposite corner. They’re not the most difficult passes, but they’re those that stretch beyond the obvious. Take, for instance, these two passes from recent preseason games.

First, watch as Prince — coming to his dominant right hand – reads Davis Bertans crashing down to “tag” the roll man. He picks up his dribble and throws the pass behind Bertans with enough pace to find the open corner shooter.

Second, watch as Prince makes a pass to the roll man against the ball screen tandem of Dennis Schröder and Steven Adams that is far more difficult than he makes it look.

Let’s examine the intricacies. Prince uses his plus length to wrap the one-handed bounce pass around Adams. In doing so, he times it to find a hole in the Thunder’s weakside I-formation. The pass finds Omari Spellman as Raymond Felton begins his retreat but before Hamidou Diallo can slide over, resulting in a wide open three-point attempt.

Level Three is more rarified air. It takes a special combination of vision and ability to make passes that most other players would either fail to see or fail to execute. One example of this are the one-handed, off-the-dribble slingshots that James Harden and LeBron James frequently use to create corner three-point attempts. Both Luka Doncic and Prince’s teammate, Trae Young, were heralded as having this ability coming into the 2018 NBA Draft.

But Young isn’t alone on the Hawks roster. Watch this Level Three pass from Prince in an April contest against the Wizards.

He snakes the initial ball screen, keeping Kelly Oubre on his back as he slithers into the paint. Prince then leaves his feet, drawing Jason Smith into the air with him and forcing Tim Frazier to crash down off the corner shooter to take away either a pass to the roll man or box him out on the shot.

But Prince does neither. Instead, he whips a wraparound pass behind Smith into the waiting hands of a wide-open Damion Lee. Splash.

The uptick in passing chops was not expected for Prince. He averaged a career-high three assists per-40 minutes as a senior at Baylor before posting a modest two assists per-36 minutes as a rookie, but that seems to be a theme for the 24-year old. In his rookie season, Prince shot just 32.7 percent from downtown on a modest 1.7 attempts per game.

But my Shot Quality Metric pegged him as a candidate to improve, because his 25th percentile Three-Point Value over Average trailed his 48th percentile Shot Difficulty by a wide margin. And improve he did — Prince shot 38.4 percent from behind the arc on 5.6 attempts per game last season. Break it down before and after the All Star Break and the contrast is more striking.

Mike Zavagno

His ability to show growth on both catch and shoot and off the dribble three-point attempts despite increased volume is a positive indicator for sustained success. This was on display in the preseason when Prince shot 8-for-15 from downtown, including 2-for-3 off the bounce.

I think we can say with confidence that he didn’t have the ability to create this much separation off the stepback when he first entered the league.

After trading down, the Hawks used the fifth overall pick on Young and effectively handed him the keys when they traded Schröder to Oklahoma City. But as we know, rookie point guards often struggle in the NBA and typically have little impact on winning basketball. Atlanta may not play much winning basketball this season, but Young’s development will certainly be aided by pairing him alongside a wing who can do this.

By using Prince more on-ball, the Hawks can highlight Young’s shooting ability (he boasted a 69.8 effective field goal percentage on catch and shoots in college) while simultaneously putting him in fewer positions to give into the worst of his shot selection tendencies.

As we already stated, putting too much stock in tanking situations is most certainly a dangerous game. But plays like this don’t evaporate into thin air.

Prince’s development as a playmaker with the ability to shoot it from range serves as yet another example of the Hawks’ ability to develop wings under Mike Budenholzer. With Coach Bud now in Milwaukee, it remains to be seen if Prince can take the next step this season. If the preseason is any indication, Prince won’t be flying under the radar much longer in Atlanta.