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Atlanta Hawks 2017-2018 player preview: Taurean Prince

Prince had a strong finish last season but how will he perform as the likely starter at small forward for the 2017-18 season?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Taurean Prince did not have a statistically impressive offensive season as a rookie for the Atlanta Hawks last year. With that said, the former Baylor forward wasn’t bad and that’s OK for a rookie even as one of the older players in his draft class. He did progress from persistently playing as the fifth offensive option on every half-court possession for the better part of the season to demonstrating more confidence and assertiveness late in the regular season and into the playoffs.

A lot of observers seem to want to see him play more at the power forward position (and he did play there quite a bit during summer league) but his primary value to his team is the size, length and mobility he can use to defend the opposing team’s strongest wing scorer. He took full advantage of the tutelage of Thabo Sefolosha and even bested him statistically on the defensive end of the court as measured by defensive real plus minus.

Prince’s improved confidence really showed up in the Hawks first round playoff match up with the Washington Wizards. uses a stat they call Player Estimated Impact as their attempt to statistically measures the overall value of a player’s performance. In the playoffs last season no rookie that played 15 minutes per game or more measured better by this statistic than Prince. It’s not the biggest sample size but if you go back and sample his play across last season you can see clear evidence that he was playing a more confident and collected game down the stretch of the regular season and into the postseason.

Prince started the final 10 games of the regular season and all six playoff games. He still started a majority of possessions during this stretch of games setting up as the floor spacer on the weak side of the offensive formation.

But you could see that when the ball found him he was confident and ready to attack. Also if the defense ignored him as they focused on the primary offensive action, he would find a way to punish that lack of attention to his threat as an off ball spacer.

The one regular season game in which we saw Prince best put it all together was a home game versus the Boston Celtics, who were trying to secure the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, on April 6. The game would be one of the more impressive wins on the Hawks season (especially offensively) and would be followed by back-to-back wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and help increase the team’s confidence as they headed toward the playoffs.

In the game against the Celtics, the Hawks would put up 71 points in the first half, Prince scored the team’s first 7 points of the game (he averaged just 5.7 points per game on the season).

This is the first possession. It may seem like a small thing but notice that he puts his hand up the moment that Al Horford crosses the mid-point of the defensive floor. He also has his hands ready and facing Ersan Ilyasova as soon as the ball hits his hands. He wastes no time getting a shot off before Horford closes out on him.

This is the second possession. The Celtics start the game with Jae Croweder matched up on Ersan Ilysaova because they rightfully expect him to be significantly more involved the Hawks pick and roll action than Prince. That leaves Horford matched up on Prince such that Celtics coach Brad Stephens hopes that he can be positioned to provide a lot of help defense.

On this play, Prince catches the ball with Horford right in front of him and demonstrates zero hesitation attacking with dribble penetration. The defensive resistance is strong enough to keep Prince from getting straight to the rim, but he demonstrates good body control and leverages a step back to get the separation needed to get off the shot.

We saw little if any of this type of assertiveness in the half court offense during the first 60 or so games in the regular season.

On this third possession, the Celtics are not matched up the way they want to be as a result of a Hawks offensive rebound. On this play Prince finds himself with the ball on the perimeter with Crowder in front of him. Again there is no hesitation. He easily gets by his defender and gets all the way to the rim for a comfortable score.

It’s encouraging that he is attacking from the left side of the basket on this play. Players, such Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder, that have a significant preference to attack by going to their right do so because of a lack of size and/or physical strength. Prince clearly understands the has the length and power to score at the rim even when the defense pushes him away from the side of his dominant hand.

This play requires more engagement and activity than simply standing in the corner. As Paul Millsap attacks with dribble penetration Prince is precise in managing parallel depth with him. Once Marcus Smart starts to engage to help with a would-be dig technique on Millsap, Prince slips to the corner. Smart has to abandon the would-be dig action and the perfect passing lane is created to punish the help defense.

A little more variation can be seen on this play as the Hawks attempt to attack the defensive limitations of Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk. Prince catches the ball in the corner again but anticipates the defensive rotation perfectly and kicks the ball to Jose Calderon for the uncontested 3-point attempt.

This play allows us to see another way that Prince is able to punish help defense on the strong side. He starts again in the weak side corner and when Smart has to put his body on Millsap to account for him as a potential rebounder Prince anticipates the opportunity to attack the offensive glass for the easy put back dunk.

This is another variation in starting in the weak side corner and punishing the amount of defensive attention to the primary action. Prince works the weak side baseline with a timely cut to receive a pass for an easy reverse lay up.

As to compare how much he improved his spot up game to his pick and roll action let’s look at a couple of examples of him in the primary offensive action.

When Jose Calderon manned the point guard position last season the Hawks’ wings often got opportunities to operate in the pick and roll action because of how effective Calderon is as a floor spacer. (Note: this could be meaningful this season because Schroder also has a very good spot up game.)

On this play Prince operates with Muscala in the screen action. The result is good in that he gets to the free throw line for an easy scoring opportunity. But the play is just not as clean and decisive as we see in his spot up play.

This play offers another look at Prince in the pick and roll action. Again the result is positive. Schroder punishes the defensive help by knocking down an open 3-point attempt. But the play is a struggle from the beggining. Prince barely gets the pass off before losing control of his momentum. Also, the pass to Ilyasova in not exactly precise.

If you watched the Hawks summer league action this might look familiar to you. He has a way to go if he is going to be entrusted with any significant volume of pick and roll opportunities. The vision and basic decision making are there, but his feel and rhythm are not even close. That could simply indicate a need for more reps as to improve. Or it could indicate an offensive limitation that might always be a part of his game.

Let’s look at just a few of plays from the playoffs that I feel are further instructive in assessing his level of play.

On this play Prince manages his depth perfectly with Howard operating in the post on the strong side. Otto Porter Jr closes out strong and this is a play that requires more than the simple shoot or pass decision. He puts the ball on the floor and gets to the rim for the easy score.

On this play we see Prince execute with an off ball screen. If he is not able to grow into a pick and roll game this is another area of play in the half court offense in which he could grow beyond his spot up game.

On this possession we see Prince operate very cleanly in the pick and roll. When the defensive technique allows him to operate as a jump shooter it looks really clean and in rhythm. So it is possible that it is just when the defensive technique forces him to operate as a passer where his play needs significant improvement.

On this play we can see a very encouraging level of assertiveness. Millsap is on the bench and the Hawks offensive game plan is built around attacking Markieff Morris, who has an impressive combination of size and mobility but does not always play on the defensive end proactively and with discipline.

Prince sees that he is matched up on Morris. He demands the ball and immediately attacks with dribble penetration and gets to the rim for the score and the and one.

This is another offensive action the Hawks could use to further develop Prince into a more valuable player in the half-court if there is a struggle to produce progress in the pick and roll. On this play Prince demonstrates excellent feel and timing in the dribble hand off (DHO) action with Howard to get separation from his defender and hit the 3-point attempt.

We see additional sophistication on this play as Prince initially heads to set up in the weak side corner. He notices Tim Hardaway Jr dragging his defender away from Millsap who is starting to initiate with the ball in an extended post on the opposite baseline. Prince recognition of Millsap’s post depth is critical on this play. He see the opportunity and space to run his defender right into that traffic as to get to the block for an easy pass and lay up for the score.

Prince is already a plus defender with the size and potential to possibly develop to an elite level of play on that end of the court. Last season he developed into an offensive player with excellent versatility in spot up opportunities. He also demonstrated some improvement operating with the ball in the pick and roll and improved rhythm and skill to generate offensive production working off of off ball screens and in DHO action.

There should be no shortage of offensive opportunities for Taurean Prince as the Atlanta Hawks enter a season without three of their top four scorers from last season. If he takes advantage of the increase in opportunities he could find himself rewarded with possible opportunities such as playing in the Rising Stars Challenge in which top rookies and sophomores will face off during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles in mid-February. I would think it is a pretty safe bet that is on his list of goals for his second NBA season.