Questions about shot selection have never been more prevalent in the NBA. As teams move further and further into a data-driven view of basketball, the focus for general managers, coaches, and players moves from whether or not a shot goes in to whether or not the shot was a good one, regardless of its impact on the scoreboard.
This focus on the process of how teams construct their offense rather than the actual results is evident with the Atlanta Hawks, where head coach Lloyd Pierce currently oversees an offense that ranks second-to-last but boasts perhaps the best shot profile in the league. Atlanta takes the right shots more often than just about any other team in the league (with Milwaukee, led by former Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, in that same conversation), and while it hasn’t produced immediate results, the implementation of that sort of offensive culture should reap massive benefits in future years.
Atlanta’s team-wide shot profile (featuring a ton of threes and shots at the rim) is virtually perfect, but that doesn’t mean everybody on the team has migrated to the new world order. Now in his third year with the Hawks, forward Taurean Prince has been a point of controversy in discussions about the team essentially since his first minutes with the team back in 2016-17.
With the look of a prototypical forward capable of knocking down threes on one end and locking down the strongest and quickest wings in the league on the other, his actual evolution has not been a smooth rise. Prince’s disjointed development to this point in his career has seen his defensive acumen fluctuate from starter-level to well below average and his offensive skill set blossom, but now questions are being raised as to Prince’s fit with the rest of the team.
The numbers aren’t kind to him in a small sample size this season – he’s taken 40 pull-up jumpers in 10 games this season, a full 40.4 percent of his shot attempts and more than anybody else on the team. He’s made 14 of these for a paltry 38.8 effective field goal percentage and a 77.5 offensive rating. There are only seven players league-wide who have taken at least 40 pull-up jumpers and score at a worse rate than Prince, and all of them are either their team’s entire offensive fulcrum (Zach LaVine), have never been good shooters (Derrick Rose, Dennis Schröder, Markelle Fultz, Ricky Rubio), or are the two Boston Celtics inexplicably having poor starts to the season (Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving).
Results to this point should be taken with a significant grain of salt and are subject to small sample sizes this early in the season, but Prince’s usage from mid-range and in the pull-up game are indicative of an overall trend with his shot selection. Never an overly explosive athlete, his attempts at the rim have plummeted since his rookie season, most of which were replaced with three-pointers, but the increasing proportion of his shots from beyond 14 feet but inside the three-point line has some wondering about his long-term offensive ceiling and role within the Hawks’ offense. Prince has also seemingly been nursing a small injury to his shooting hand over the last few weeks and while that hasn’t held him out of any games (he missed Tuesday’s game against Charlotte with a different ailment), it’s clearly affecting his shooting, both in games and in pre-game warmups, when he can be seen fiddling with the tape on his ring and pinkie fingers or throwing off the tape completely, only to see it return come game time.
Prince is already a better offensive player than many would have expected after his rookie year, but where does he go from here? Given his shot selection, he doesn’t seem to see himself as simply an effective outside shooter; he wants to be more than that. Getting to that level means improving in one of three key areas: as a creator for his teammates, getting to the rim and finishing at a high level, or knocking down these pull-up jumpers.
He’s not a particularly good passer at this stage of his career, though his assists are up this season as an overall percentage of his possessions used. He’s not going to finish at the rim at a high level due to his athletic limitations. So, if he wants to expand his offensive game beyond the three-point shot, are these pull-ups a necessary part of his development? This Hawks team is the perfect opportunity for guys to try to broaden their skill sets, and there’s a chance the coaching staff and front office have asked Prince to try to become more of a two-level scorer.
The Hawks have one of the best shot profiles in the league, but Prince’s individual profile stands out as potentially standing against the grain for what the team wants to do. In terms of setting an offensive culture of playing for each other and passing up decent shots for better ones, does Prince eventually fall in line or do they give him more freedom to do as he pleases? How does this freedom affect his teammates, who might have a more rigid set of instructions with regards to shot selection?
We don’t have any answers to these questions 11 games into the season, but they will be worth monitoring as the year progresses.
All statistics are courtesy of Synergy.