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Exploring the growing offensive game of Taurean Prince, Part 1

Let’s dig in to some film.

Denver Nuggets versus the Atlanta Hawks Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Taurean Prince is enjoying a breakout season, especially on the offensive end of the court. After operating during his rookie season almost exclusively as a catch and shoot threat, he is being entrusted to take part in an increasing amount of the primary offensive action this season. Last season, he scored 15 or more points in just 5 games. This season he has hit that mark 17 times already.

His numbers are up across the board. The most encouraging of those numbers is that he is shooting better than 40 percent from the 3-point line on 5.3 attempts per 36 minutes.

While the team has taken a significant step back defensively this season, Prince continues to create defensive events. He has also become an improved rebounder. Take a look at his statistical rank among second year players in the league this season as compared to the rookie class of last season.

*among players qualified by volume

Before digging into some film, let’s review some statistics that might help inform us as to what we should look for within the video review.

97.4 percent of his 3-point makes this season have been assisted as compared to 87.9 percent last season. This informs us that while his volume of three-point attempts have increased he continues to look for these shots within the natural flow of the offensive scheme. He is not going rogue as to look for more shots from beyond the arc.

On the other hand, only 41.5 percent of his 2-point makes have been assisted this season as compared to 63 percent last season. This informs us that when he is chased off of the 3-point line (or in transition) that he has developed the ability to create a quality shot for himself.

Also he has improved his shooting at the rim from 55.7 percent last season to 62.4 percent this season. This is especially impressive when you consider that only 41.5 percent of his makes at the rim have been assisted this year as compared to 69.1 percent last season.

Prince has grown his game beyond the “3-and-D” label (big wing defenders that primarily catch and shoot on the offensive end). He is becoming an offensive creator, for himself and others.

Before we really dig in to the video, I wanted to offer an example from last season and an example from this season of the same play. One of the key plays a ball handler must master as to be considered a reliable offensive creator is the skip pass to the weak side corner.

This skip pass is a play that, instead of being passed around the perimeter player-to-player-to-player, the ball is passed from the strong side of offensive formation to a teammate spotted up in the weak side corner.

This is an example of Prince trying to make the skip pass last season in a home game versus the Celtics. While the ball eventually finds its way to an open shooter the play is a struggle from the beginning and Prince has to contort his body just to get the pass off.

Contrast that play with this play in a game versus the Indiana Pacers this season. Prince is under control the entire way and makes a precise one-handed pass right to the chest of Kent Bazemore who comfortably catches and hits an uncontested 3-point shot.

Creating shots for himself

On this play Prince finds himself being defended by Kevin Love after a switch. Initially Ersan Ilyasova asks for the ball to operate against Kyle Korver on the near side post. But Prince decides to attack the slow-footed Love off of the dribble and gets to the middle of the paint for a comfortable hook shot that he converts.

One might say this is not a high probability shot that he can rely on to use frequently to produce efficient scoring. That might be true but that it is what makes this play more impressive.

Some coaches suggest that when a big player has a small player on the block to not worry about forcing the ball into the post. They suggest attacking the slower defender on the perimeter to create a decent shot knowing that if the shot is missed the smaller player will have to deal with the bigger player on the boards. It’s sort of a two-for-one opportunity. Either you make the shot or there is a good likelihood for a very high percentage put back shot on the offensive glass.

Jae Crowder has more than a solid defensive reputation. But he entered this season less than 100% physically after enduring a difficult off-season. On this play Prince demonstrates the confidence to take him off of the dribble and gets to a comfortable shot on the baseline.

Contrast what you see here to a young player dribbling uncontrollably to the rim hoping to get there will the ball still secured. Notice the stop and start type of movement that he uses to get separation. This is an indication that he is developing the craft to create a good shot for himself while staying under control.

This might be the most impressive example of Prince creating his own shot that we have seen this season. Notice that he initially takes a run at his defender, Dion Waiters of the Miami Heat, but has to give the ball up after picking up his dribble.

Dennis Schroder and Miles Plumlee explore a pick and roll on the left side of the offensive formation but the solid defensive coverage forces the ball back to Prince.

Princes incorporates what he learned on his previous attempt to attack Waiters just seconds before this attempt. On the first attempt Waiters uses a trail technique to push Prince toward the defensive help of Kelly Olynyk and he is forced to abandon his dribble.

On the second attempt he dribbles aggressively into Waiters body so that the trail technique is not an option. His aggressiveness puts Waiters on his heels and in the path of Bam Adebayo, the would-be help defender. Prince uses a step back to get the separation he needs to get the uncontested shot. This is excellent offensive craft.

Before we move on, take another look at this play. When Princes catches the pass coming back from Schroder notice his positioning. He is not snugged up to the 3-point line, he is a full step behind it (you can see the same thing in the example of him attacking off of the dribble versus Jae Crowder). That’s critically important as you will be able to see as we dig into more video.

Here is an example of Prince attacking a true center after Tristan Thompson is switched on to him in pick and roll coverage. Notice how aggressively he dribbles into the Cleveland big man to get him moving toward the sideline instead of the baseline all the while maintaining his dribble.

He then works comfortably toward the rim for the uncontested lay up. Also notice the ball jab that functions as a fake pass to Tyler Cavanaugh. It puts Jose Calderon on his hills as to both give Prince a clear path toward the rim and to give Cavanaugh an opportunity to establish his position as a rebounder.

This play could be classified as secondary transition. The Hawks entire unit recognizes this opportunity and executes it flawlessly. On the previous possession Luke Babbitt and Lance Thomas are tangled up on the opposite baseline which creates a four-on-four opportunity. Notice as the play begins that Prince looks back over his left shoulder to assess whether they truly have the time to operate the four-on-four attack.

As they recognize that Prince is isolated on the right side of the offensive floor against the defensively challenged Doug McDermott they clear out and give him the entire right half side to operate.

Notice how Marco Belinelli very intentionally floats left and pushes Ersan Ilyasova and Isaiah Taylor into alignment. Instead of trying to blow past McDermott, Prince just works his way into the hip of his defender. This keeps McDermott in between Prince and Kristaps Porzingis which cuts off the potential weak side rim protection from the Knicks big man.

Prince gets the push shot to fall but you might notice that he is a bit frustrated with himself for not also drawing contact and the potential “and one” opportunity.

Operating off the catch or dribble hand off

This play looks very simple. Prince punishes as Courtney Lee helps on the dribble penetration of Schroder. Lee has the responsibility as the weak side defender of helping with a “dig.” The goal of the “dig” is to force the ball handler to abandon his dribble, which Lee is able to do here.

But Prince positions himself completely sqaure to where Schroder rises as he picks up his dribble. Notice again that Prince is not snugged up on the 3-point line, he is a full step behind it. Because Prince’s perimeter shooting technique includes a “hop” step as to initiate his vertical jump, starting a full step behind the line let’s him have the space to operate with the “hop” technique without stepping on or inside the 3-point line.

Notice when 3-point shooters get a toe on the line and end up credited with a 2-point shot instead. This often happens when the shooter starts snugged up right on the line instead of giving himself sufficient space.

Prince’s adjusted positioning this season has been a significant aspect of his improved shooting from beyond the 3-point line.

For those wondering why he sometimes uses the hop and sometimes not: he tends to use the hop above the 3-point break (on the longer attempts) but not below the 3-point break (where there is no space to use the hop and the shots are shorter).

Prince is set up in the weak side corner on this play as he was very often last season. He is being defended by Lebron James. If you look closely you can see Lebron communicate to JR Smith that he wants him to defend whichever player ends up higher on the floor as opposed to staying attached to Kent Bazemore. Lebron and Smith are using a “match up” defensive technique on this play.

Bazemore and Prince recognize the coverage and take advantage. Prince cuts short his “lift” on the weak side and positions himself just below the 3-point break where he receives the pass. His positioning allows Bazemore to set a quasi-screen to cut off Smith’s attempt to close out on Prince. The result is an uncontested 3-point attempt.

On this play Prince receives a dribble hand off from Cavanaugh while his defender, Doug McDermott, chooses to use the trail technique chasing him over the screen. Notice that Prince operates a dribble with his left hand. This is important because less developed offensive players often have a strong, instinctive preference to work the ball back to their dominant hand.

Also notice how Princes uses his dribble. He keep the dribble alive while feeling for his defender. If you look really closely you can see that his last dribble is a wonderfully timed hesitation dribble. This technique often convinces the defender that the dribbler is committing himself as a shooter. Instead Prince uses the hesitation dribble to get McDermott to fly past him to open up the uncontested mid-range attempt.

Take one more look to appreciate the value of one’s teammates working to make your defender work hard for the entire possession. Both Bazemore and Cavanaugh work hard to make McDermott stop and start and redirect himself multiple times before he even gets remotely reconnected to Prince... the result is a tired defender that the ball handler get to attack.

This DHO on the left side of the offensive formation has the effect of Prince coming off of “staggered” screens. It begins with the screen from DeAndre’ Bembry followed by the DHO with Cavanuagh. Prince is able to get downhill as Enes Kanter (unsurprisingly) leaps himself into a useless position.

Cavanaugh does a wonderful job running interference with the other would-be defenders, McDermott and Ron Baker.

You can also notice that Kristaps Porzingis ends up with the “dig” responsibility. It’s a pretty ugly lunge but he does discontinue the ball handler’s dribble. But Prince anticipates the uncontested path he will get to the rim and deftly uses a very long stride to get to the backboard. You might notice how long it takes Prince to get to the backboard and his lack of lift. This is excellent craft.

Knowing he will be uncontested, Prince just slows it all down to make sure he can get the lay up off without needing that extra step that would have resulted in a travelling call.

This play is very similar to the primary actions within which Prince operated last season. It is a simple catch and shoot. But I wanted to include this as to explore how he has improved even in this action since last season.

Notice that Prince’s hand goes up before the ball is even received by Miles Plumlee. The pass is fairly off target from where Prince is initially set up. But notice Prince’s recognition of this and how instead of preparing to catch the ball outside of the frame of his body and recollecting himself to prepare to shoot, he uses the time the ball is en route to slide to his left and catch the ball squarely within the frame of his body. It creates just a little more distance for Josh Richardson to cover in his attempted close out and the result is a quick catch and release and another 3-point make.

Check back soon for Part 2, within which we will explore how Princes has improved as an offensive creator that facilitates good shots for his teammates.