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Atlanta Hawks 2018-2019 player preview: Taurean Prince

Time for a breakout?

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

In advance of the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Peachtree Hoops crew will preview each player on the current roster. The sixteenth breakdown focuses on third-year forward Taurean Prince.

Taurean Prince enters his third NBA season after enjoying a breakout performance on the offensive end of the court during the 2017-18 campaign. Among the members of the 2016 draft class, only Jamaal Murray, Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown averaged more points per 36 minutes than Prince last season.

He relied on a perimeter shot with improved mechanics to knock down 38.5 percent of his attempts from behind the three-point line. Prince was one of only 20 players in the league last season to shoot at that percentage on five or more attempts per game. In short, it was a nice development for a player who entered the league largely with a defense-centric profile.

On the defensive side, it seems the improvement offensively came at the cost of significantly less effective performance on that end of the court. It’s often hard to evaluate the defensive performance of a young player when he is playing with a very young core group of players and on a team with a roster that is consistently in transition.

During his rookie season, Prince’s defensive potential was on display when he was able to lean on the guidance of strong veteran defenders like Paul Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha. He finished fourth in the league among small forwards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus statistic. Last season, he regressed to 82nd of 88 qualified players.

So the question that seems important as he readies to enter the 2018-19 season is this: Who is the real Taurean Prince? Can he continue to grow his offensive skill set while also performing defensively closer to the standard he set during his rookie campaign?

One consideration new head coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff will need to deal with sooner than later will be whether he should get as many opportunities as he got last season operating on the ball. He did demonstrate improvement across last season working in the pick and roll and in dribble hand off (DHO) action. And as a shooter, Prince was league average in scoring efficiency (54.9 true shooting percentage).

As opposing teams adjusted last season and made it a priority to chase Prince off the three-point line, he had mixed results attacking close out defenders. His decision making was shaky especially early in the season. Frequently, he would dribble into contested shots at the rim; he converted only 51.3 percent of his lay up attempts on the season.

But over roughly the final month of the NBA season, Prince demonstrated some more nuanced decision making finding other options besides dribbling all the way to the rim regardless of what opposing defenders were doing. He seemed to learn how to leverage his length to take measured shots under control with some solid results. In his last 20 games, the former Baylor star increased his efficiency as a scorer to a 59.1 true shooting percentage while using 27 percent of his team’s possessions while on the floor.

That’s just a quarter of a season of sample size, but forwards in the league that can produce at that level consistently are mostly perennial all-stars.

Let’s take a look.

On this play, Prince is operating in the pick and roll with John Collins. The Rockets chase him off of the three-point line but he confidently works his way to the middle of the paint and rises for the uncontested field goal attempt.

He demonstrated little if any of this feel and decision making during the first half of the season.

Here, Prince uses a screen from Dewayne Dedmon to get the switch. He attacks Clint Capela, a very solid defender, with dribble penetration. It’s noteworthy here again that he does not try to force his way to the rim. Instead, he uses his length to get separation vertically and is able to knock down the uncontested floater.

He is able to draw Capela again on the switch here. Prince attacks under control with the dribble and is able to find separation in the form of a step back and uses his length to hit the shot over the attempted contest by the Rockets center.

On this possession against Miami, we see an example of Prince operating comfortably finding just enough of a pocket between two defenders to get a decent shot attempt up. He may have been able to work the ball to Collins here. But his confidence navigating two opposing defenders is what is worth noticing on this play.

More of the same can be seen on this play versus the Celtics. Prince receives the ball on the move after executing an Iverson cut. Brown ends up trailing him as he dribbles toward the baseline. He feels the space to square, elevate and hit the largely uncontested jumper.

Later in the season, Prince also demonstrated an improved ability to finish through contact as he does on the play versus the Heat. The key is body control and keeping his torso square. And an awareness of what his length offers him. The average player is not going to have an angle to get the ball to the rim after a bump like this.

This is another example of finishing through contact on this final possession of the first half in Boston. He does not get the call here. But earlier in the season, he was not looking to finish a play like this one. It was just the final month or so where it could be seen that he was taking the fullest advantage of his size to put decent shot attempts up like this one.

Operating at the primary ball handler on this play against the best defensive team in the league last year (as measured by defensive rating) Prince has to find a decent shot attempt as the shot clock winds down. This ends up being a so-called “dreaded long two-point attempt.” And certainly no teams are looking to generate a lot of shots like this one.

But it’s the composure that he demonstrates on this play and the way Prince is able to measure a very capable defender that stands out.

In a vacuum, many if not all of these shot attempts are analytically not desirable looks. But the players that are allowed to take these shots are the players that can consistently make them. And those players are usually among the best offensive players on their respective teams.

Is that the right role to project for Prince this season and beyond? The only way to find the answer to that question is more opportunity for him. And that should be completely reasonable given where the team is in the process of it’s rebuild. If the answer is no, there is still a number of paths to him being a valuable member of the next good Hawks team.

But regardless to what ends up being the appropriate offensive role for Prince moving forward, he is going to need to demonstrate more consistency in all phases of the game he is going to have to be more effective than he was defensively last season.