Coming out of his rookie year, in which he started the final ten games of the regular season and all six postseason games, expectations were high for Prince in his sophomore campaign. He was drafted No. 12 overall in 2016 with the hopes that he would develop into the prototypical 3-and-D wing the Atlanta Hawks have craved for years; at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan coming out of Baylor, Prince was the ideal fit for the modern NBA. Defensive versatility was the name of the game with Prince and if Hawk University could coax out a workable three-point shot, he would be a rotation player for years to come.
His rookie season delivered on that promise almost immediately: he was exactly the defender Atlanta needed, posting high-level steals and blocks numbers and holding his own on the defensive glass despite the presence of rebound vacuum Dwight Howard. The Hawks were 5.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor and he posted the fourth-best defensive RPM among small forwards.
The future was bright; it’s rare that a rookie figures out defense at the NBA level in his first season, especially after playing in a zone in college, as Prince did at Baylor. His sophomore year was supposed to be that next step forward from workable defender to the stopper for whom the Hawks had been searching since LeBron James tortured them to the tune of two consecutive playoff sweeps in the years preceding Prince’s selection.
Instead, as the team worsened around him, so did Prince. While Kent Bazemore, Prince’s partner on the wing, stepped his game up in every area, Prince’s defensive game fell off a cliff. The defense that made his name in his rookie year disappeared, to the point that he was benched multiple times throughout the year for his poor effort and execution on that end.
The positive impact he had on the Hawks’ defense vanished—Atlanta was 3.7 points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the floor, his steal and block rates fell to around average levels and while his individual rebounding numbers stayed relatively constant, the team as a whole was better on the glass when he was out of the game. That fourth-ranked DRPM from 2016-17 fell to a ghastly 84th (out of 89 eligible small forwards); no small forward played as many minutes as Prince this season and was more harmful on the defensive end of the floor. Outside of Dennis Schröder (who might as well change his legal name to “Ennis Schröer” this point), no Hawk was more disappointing on defense in 2017-18 than Prince.
In an unexpected turn, as Prince decided to essentially take the year off from playing defense, his offensive game blossomed in a way nobody could have ever anticipated. 32 percent on 3.7 three-point attempts per 36 minutes turned into 39 percent on 6.7 attempts as Prince developed into one of the better spot-up snipers in the league in 2017-18; of the 205 players who took at least 100 catch-and-shoot jumpers this season, Prince’s 1.28 points per possession ranked 19th (per Synergy) and helped to buoy what was a very poor Hawks offense this season. A year after the offense went through the floor any time he stepped on the floor, Prince had a positive overall impact on the Hawks’ offense in 2017-18, a welcome development in what has been a perplexing two-year stretch to open his NBA career.
Prince role expanded through all parts of the offense, especially late in the year, when he became the first-choice secondary ball handler when Bazemore went down with a knee injury. Results were very hit and miss, as he flashed an ability to create his own shot, even if those self-created shots weren’t particularly efficient.
Turnovers were a massive problem for Prince throughout the year; he finished dead last in true turnover percentage in pick-and-roll this season among players who handled the ball in at least 250 pick-and-rolls. Despite his prototypical NBA body, Prince has never been a high-level athlete, which doesn’t hurt his jumper but severely impacts his ability to finish around the rim or shake defenders in pick-and-roll.
The scoring load Prince took on to close the season is almost certainly not a sustainable feature of his game moving forward, but the outside shooting should be transferable to any team and any situation in which Prince finds himself in his career. Combine that with an increased effort level on the defensive end and he’s still on track to fulfill his 3-and-D potential as a role player, though the defense has to be a massive concern for anybody expecting him to be a positive contributor to a starting unit on a contending team.
The good news for Atlanta is that they hold all the cards for his development; Prince still has two years left on his rookie scale contract and will have a clean slate with the new head coach (unless the Hawks hire in house by elevating Darvin Ham or Taylor Jenkins) to rebuild his value on the defensive end and continue to move forward with his offensive development.