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Taurean Prince ready for expanded role as year two begins

The Hawks’ 2016 first round pick is ready to step up in place of his outgoing veterans.

Atlanta Hawks Media Day Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When Taurean Prince was drafted with the 12th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, not many could’ve predicted what his rookie season held in store for him. Sure, we all knew he was heading to the league with the Hawks but the life of an NBA rookie is always filled with great uncertainty.

‘Will he even play tonight? Is he part of the rotation tonight or just part of the garbage time lineup? Is he heading to the D-League for a little while?’ ‘Will Mike Dunleavy be eating away at the minutes he should be getting?’ etc...

Prince checked many of the conventional rookie boxes: There were times where he was part of the regular rotation, times where he even played 25+ minutes, times where he didn’t play at all and times when he spent time in the D-League — something that Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer acknowledged wasn’t easy for Prince.

“It’s not easy when you’re not playing,” said coach Mike Budenholzer on Media Day. “It’s not easy...when I think we’re very aggressive and forward thinking about how we use the G-League and both of those guys (Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry) spent time in the G-League.”

Prince continued to work hard as the season progressed — making appearances here and there — and his big break came in late March when an injury to starting small forward, Thabo Sefolosha, prompted Bud to insert Prince into the starting lineup. Sefolosha would miss the next eight games in the Hawks’ run-in to the playoffs, during which Prince averaged 11.4 points per game on 41% shooting from the field in 31 minutes a game.

When Sefolosha returned to action off the bench in the Hawks’ penultimate regular season, many believed that Thabo — who was arguably the team’s best perimeter defender, who was vastly more experienced and, after all, was the starting small forward prior to his injury — would return to the starting lineup for the imminent playoff series against the Washington Wizards.

And, irrespective of everything else, Prince was still — ultimately — a rookie, and rookies just normally don’t see meaningful action in playoff series/contribute in a meaningful way off the bench, forget the starting lineup. It’s just not a thing you see very often.

But to the surprise of just about everyone, Sefolosha would play a a total of nine minutes against the Wizards and it was Prince who started every single playoff game at small forward and would perform very well — averaging 11.2 points per game on 55.8% shooting from the field in 31 minutes a game.

The rookie forward was also a very consistent and efficient contributor, about the only consistent contributor for the Hawks during the playoffs outside of Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder as Kent Bazemore, Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr. all had up-and-down series’.

Though the Hawks ultimately lost the series in six games, many fans felt very optimistic about Taurean Prince’s future after one of the better rookie playoff performances in recent memory.

“To see Taurean emerge and start for the last 15, 20 games and a playoff series — and for him to play really efficiently and for him to play — for a rookie, he was a great contributor for us,” praised coach Bud on Media Day.

After it was all said and done, Prince’s rookie season was as he expected.

“It was everything I thought it would be,” said Prince during the Hawks’ exit interviews. “The playoffs were great. I’m glad I got to experience that. As far as he regular season, it just goes to show you what patience can bring, just trusting the process, not getting too low or too high. Then, just believing in your abilities as a player.”

Time moves quickly in the NBA and many things changed for the Hawks over the summer. Mainly, a new GM in Travis Schlenk and the roster changed dramatically as a result of the decisions made by Schlenk.

Indeed, the battle hardened, veteran playoff team that surrounded Prince in his rookie season was no more.

No more Kyle Korver, no more Kris Humphries, no more José Calderón, no more Mike Dunleavy, no more Thabo Sefolosha, no more Dwight Howard and no more Paul Millsap...

Prince now returns to Atlanta for his second season, already one of the more experienced players on the roster — at least when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks system. The only current players that have spent more time in Budenholzer’s system longer than Prince are Dennis Schröder, Mike Muscala and Kent Bazemore — that’s it.

Prince figured to play a larger role headed into his sophomore regardless of who was/wasn’t leaving in free agency but the roster turnover over the summer absolutely cemented Prince into a starting role in his second season, where much is expected of him following his playoff performance.

And the Hawks are going to need his production and, fortunately, Prince has been working all summer improve himself for such an eventuality.

Speaking at NBA Summer League, Prince mentioned that he was working on his ball-handling skills and other offensive skills that may be called upon this season.

“I’m working on my ball-handling, decision-making, just being a better pick-and-roll player,” said Prince. “Just putting myself in a lot of uncomfortable positions so I can be more comfortable as time goes on.”

It’s interesting that Prince mentions being a better ball-handler and a better pick-and-roll player. To me at least, this would suggest that Prince, perhaps, expects to play more of a role on offense this year with the ball in his hands, making plays and coming off of screens.

Scoring isn’t something that’s unfamiliar to Prince, who led Baylor in scoring in his Junior and Senior years. We also saw some scoring flashes from Prince with the Hawks last season (mostly in the playoffs), and you can bet Prince will be ready to take up some of offensive slack if he’s called upon to do so.

As for his coach and what he wants from Prince in his second year, Bud just wants to Prince to carry over the momentum he ended his rookie season with into his second season, but also warns that Prince needs to stick to the “steps” when it comes to his development as a player.

“Going into his second season for Taurean we just want to see that (end of season momentum to) carry over. I think there’s steps to a player’s development, it’s a process. If you start skipping those steps sometimes it can lead to a regression.”

Prince is a highly motivated young player and has the potential to make a significant impact on both ends of the floor for the Hawks this season (something that hasn’t gone unnoticed) but Bud — as you might have gathered from his previous comments — is exercising caution, reminding everyone, as well as himself and his staff, that there is a developmental process to go through.

“I think Taurean wants to be great. Taurean wants to have a big impact on the game on both ends of the court, and in some ways we’re probably just going to have to keep reminding him — and reminding ourselves — that it’s a process and it’s going to take incremental improvement, incremental steps.”

“But I think because of what he went through (last season where Prince often didn’t play and spent time in the D-League) he understands and appreciates that.”

Overall, we all know that Prince — despite the cautious approach Budenholzer is taking — is set for a much larger role this season.

But Prince isn’t just ready for an expanded role on the court when it comes to his game: he’s also ready for a larger role as a leader.

Prince parked his leadership skills and abilities last season out of respect for the veterans on the team last year (though he didn’t stay totally silent) but is ready to take on a larger leadership role in his sophomore season.

“I was at Baylor as a senior two years ago, so I still got leadership qualities in me,” Prince responded when about different expectations when it came to leadership.

“I kind of threw them to the side a little bit because of the veterans we did have. Still showed signs, but it’s a way to go about it...had Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, Thabo and those guys to really look up to and take advice from.”

“Now it’s just time to bring them (the leadership skills) back out the bag that I put them in last year. Throw advice to these first year guys.”

Of course, Prince realises he is still young when it comes to NBA experience and continues to learn from others around the league.

“It’s still new to me too. I’m learning, I’m trying to get advice from my other peers from around the league and just continue to build off everything you get.”

When you think of a leader, what traits/characteristics do you want them to display? Is it accountability? Is it honesty?

Personally, traits I really value are confidence, optimism, belief and the intention to instil these characteristics into other people, and Prince has already displayed these qualities.

Prince was the early voice of defiance and belief when the basketball world began to bury the 2017-18 Hawks ten feet under the ground — predicting the Hawks to be one of the worst teams in the league.

“No, no, no. I disagree. I don’t like to go off the rebuilding word because I like to win. I love to win,” Prince commented at Summer League when asked if the this upcoming season could possibly be difficult due to the many personnel changes.

“Anybody who is on the team, I’m going to make sure that they love to win too. I don’t expect to have a bad season next year. I expect to have a good season.”

Prince reaffirmed his beliefs on Media Day and has, what many would call, extremely ambitious expectations for the Hawks this season.

“Well, they (the expectations) are playoffs, first and foremost. I don’t expect anything less...”

Time will unveil the tide that the Hawks’ season will turn in, but Prince is already displaying the kind of characteristics you’d want in a leader — he strongly believes in those around him and wants to put something into them: belief, confidence and a winning feeling. He’s optimistic of a successful season and has stuck true to his beliefs.

Taurean Prince’s second in the season is going to be one of great expectation amongst Hawks fans as he prepares to step into expanded roles on and off the court. He’s raring to go, and the good news is he doesn’t have to wait much longer...

How do you see Taurean Prince’s season unfolding?