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What to make of Taurean Prince’s offensive breakout

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In the final stretch of a young team having a tough season, sometimes breakthrough performances by a young player have meaning, but not always.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Taurean Prince has had quite an interesting month of March during his sophomore campaign. On March 4, during a Sunday home game against the Phoenix Suns, he hit what would end up being his first game-winning shot. He would have two fairly quiet games as the Hawks went on the road following the win over Phoenix. He put together a nine-point, eight-rebound performance in a loss in Toronto followed by a three-point game in a blowout loss in Indiana.

But in the Hawks four games since the loss to the Pacers, Prince has put up 38-, 25-, 22-, and 38-point performances in that order. It must be noted that the Hawks lost each of those four games, but they had some relatively respectful stretches of play while missing key rotational players.

A stretch like this from a young player during the final weeks of a challenging season can sometimes just end up being a reason for the team’s fan base to feel some optimism about the future of the franchise and not much more than that. At other times, almost surely less often, it can be the start of something special, or if not quite special, it could be something important.

Let’s take a look at what this recent performance from Prince might be.

Perhaps the first thing to evaluate in a situation like this is whether or not the other players that normally get more priority in the offense are playing. Another way to put that is “are the players who normally take the most shots playing?”

Game 1: Bulls 129 Hawks 122. Prince had 38 points, seven assists and six rebounds.

Dennis Schroder did not play because of a left elbow sprain. Kent Bazemore left the game after just 12 minutes of play and would later end up being ruled out for the rest of the season. Malcolm Delaney did not play because of a left ankle sprain.

Game 2: Thunder 119 Hawks 107. Prince had 25 points, eight rebounds and three assists.

All Hawks regular players played with the exception of Bazemore and Delaney.

Games 3: Hornets 129 Hawks 117. Prince had 22 points, ten rebounds and six assists.

All Hawks regular players played with the exception of Bazemore and Delaney.

Game 4: Bucks 122 Hawks 117. Prince had 38 points, eight rebounds and one assist.

All Hawks regular players played with the exception of Bazemore and Delaney.

It is also worth considering that the game versus the Suns in which Prince hit the game winner was just ten games since Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova both played prior to being respectively bought out. So in terms of how much of the amount of offensive opportunities have opened up since the beginning of February, it’s quite significant.

Let’s take a look at the volume of missing field goal attempts in each of the Hawks last four games.

In addition to the time missed by Schroder, Bazemore and Delaney, DeAndre’ Bembry is missing a lot of minutes that he would otherwise likely be getting while the Hawks play rookies such as Andrew White (on a two-way contract) and Damion Lee (on a 10-day contract) at the wing position.

So, there has been significantly less competition for offensive opportunities in the Hawks back court and wing positions.

Likely the second most valuable evaluation is whether or not volume numbers have skyrocketed while efficiency numbers have plummeted? If yes, that would suggest that there is very little reason to hope for the level of production to be sustainable.

In most cases, it makes no sense to compare a 66-game sample size to a 4-games sample size. So caution should be used when making use of it, but it is the only way to assess whether efficiency has been largely sacrificed to produce the overall increased offensive production.

Let’s take a look.

Clearly efficiency has not been sacrificed as to achieve the production. But the sample size is still such that this should not be considered automatically sustainable.

That is not being critical or dismissive of his play. After all, the only players in the last ten seasons in the NBA to average 30 points per game with an eFG% of 49+, a TS% of 52+ and a USG% of 30+ for an entire season include Kevin Durant (twice), James Harden, Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

Perhaps the most important question is whether his recent play is indicative that he is improving or showing more potential to be more of an offensive creator, either for himself or for himself and others.

There have been a few examples of Prince creating for himself and others in pick and roll action of recent.

Prince attacks the paint aggressively and demonstrates a strong finish despite a rim protector trying to deter him.

He creates an easy dunk for Dedmon via the pick and roll.

And an open look for Dedmon from the 3-point line on this play.

But his tracking numbers overall on the season in the pick and roll are such that a much larger sample size of this type of play should be wanted to elevate expectations.

Next let’s evaluate him in terms of being able to create his own shot in general. If we use the NBA.com tracking data and measure him on shooting possessions not classified as “catch and shoot” possessions we should be able to see if there has been improvement in these last four games.

In games through March 9 on such possessions, Prince has been a 37.5% shooter from 2-point range and a 38.8% shooter from 3-point range,

In his last four games on such possessions, he has been a 49.1% shooter on 2-point attempts and a 32.9% shooter on 3-point attempts.

As such it’s probably most fair to credit him for maintaining if not increasing his efficiency as his volume has increased but to recognize that his performance has not been indicative of him having an emerging ability to create his own shot. The improvement on these possessions inside the three point line along with his increased assist rate are probably most fairly described as a potential emerging improvement to punish closeout defenders by putting the ball on the floor to attack the rim, find a high percentage mid-range shot or breakdown the defense to open up good looks for his teammates.

In fact, through March 9, Prince shot 55.7% inside of 5 feet on 192 shot attempts. In his last 4 games, he has converted 15 of 20 shot attempts inside of 5 feet.

Let’s take a quick look at a few plays in which Prince has dealt with close out defenders during his recent play.

On this play Prince recognizes that Zach LaVine is not going to allow himself to get established as a potential shooter at the 3-point line. He puts the ball on the floor and get to the rim for the reverse lay up.

On this play Prince easily navigates Corey Brewer as the closeout defender and finds the space to hit a step back 3-point attempt.

Here we see Prince playing at the power forward position. He sets the screen and rolls to the 3-point line. There is no close out defender as Kemba Walker and Frank Kaminsky seem unprepared for Prince operating in this action.

A new wrinkle can be seen on this play as Prince is operating off of the ball but is in the primary action. He gets a pin down screen from John Collins and navigates the defense to hit the 3-point attempt.

Another wrinkle here with Prince operating off of the ball. The fake pin down on the left side opens up a sort of a back screen from Mike Muscala as Prince traverses the baseline to get up a 3-point attempt as two Milwaukee defenders close out on him.

This is a great example of Prince starting off of the ball but punishing a closeout defender. He uses a ball fake to open a path for dribble penetration and finishes aggressively in traffic.

In summary, Prince is being entrusted with much more frequency to operate in primary offensive actions. He is initiating more with the ball both in pick and roll and dribble hand-off actions. And he is having more success of recent in those actions.

But a majority of his recent success still begins with him off of the ball whether that be spacing in the weak side corner or being a primary operator in off ball screen action. It’s all encouraging. But as to appropriately set expectations should his improved production continue it will be important to track whether he is initiating offensive for himself with more frequency versus him being a more commonly involved part of primary offensive actions that most often start with him positioned off of the ball.