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How Taurean Prince handles the ups and downs of another rebuilding season

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The third-year forward knows what you think about him, and he’s determined to become fulfill the promises of the 2016 draft prospect you fell in love with all over again.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Feb. 10 was another long night for the Atlanta Hawks.

The locker room cleared out faster than normal. There was never the typical “jokester” moment from Dewayne Dedmon to lighten up the environment in the locker room while media stood nearby waiting for the players to finish changing. The players held a few side conversations to break up the typically awkward post-game silence as reporters file in holding cell phones, note pads, recorders, cameras and microphones, but that was all.

The team just finished a weekend that gave up a combined 253 points to the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets, two divisional foes who also carry losing records. It was the end of a deflating week for the team that began to show positive flashes throughout the month of January and early February.

One of the few positives, however, was the fast start that Taurean Prince enjoyed against the Magic. Prince opened up the scoring for the Hawks on the night after catching a crosscourt pass from Trae Young on the left wing before driving and knocking down a step-back fadeaway at the free throw line.

A couple of possessions later, Young found an open Prince on the weak side for a corner three. Prince added a steal and a block to the Hawks’ first-quarter effort, after which Atlanta trailed by only a point.

“[I was] taking what the defense gave me,” Prince said. “I continued to be aggressive offensively with the opportunities that I get. Then, I tried to lock in defensively.”

The spurts of great potential have still shown up for Prince in his third season. He was applauded for his defensive effort against the Golden State Warriors on Dec. 3, leading the team to a road win against the Washington Wizards by shooting 7-for-10 from the field to finish with 21 points on Feb. 4 and knocking down a big three late in the home win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 12.

He’s shooting his best field goal percentage of his career, and is averaging just a touch below last season’s averages from the free throw line and beyond the arc.

The glimpses of why the Hawks traded up into the lottery for Prince in 2016 have come at the right time after returning to the lineup in late January.

“I think I’ve adjusted pretty well [since returning],” Prince said. “I’m moving the ball well. I’m playing within the team. I’m cutting way down on my turnovers. I’m taking the shots that are given, I’m not forcing anything. Most of all, I’m taking more pride on the defensive end.”

Through his first 37 games played this season, Prince’s defensive rating is at a career-worst 115.1. Granted, with the NBA’s new shot clock rule of cutting down to 14 seconds after grabbing offensive rebounds, the entire league is scoring more on a nightly basis. However, his net rating is also at a career-low of -11.6. He’s also averaging a career-low -6.9 in the +/- category. Coming into the NBA, Prince was widely-regarded as one of the better defensive prospects in the 2016 draft class, but that potential hasn’t turned into results on a consistent basis for him.

When asked about Prince’s defensive struggles after the Hawks gave up 129 points to Charlotte, Pierce declined to single out the third-year forward and said that Atlanta as a team had a poor performance defensively.

“We don’t do that,” Pierce said in the postgame conference, defending his player and not taking the bait on the question.

Prince acknowledges the mistakes that he and the team have made on the court during this rebuilding season. There’s still one thing that always keeps the 25-year-old sane through the losing streaks and the regular downs of an 82-game season.

“Family,” he said. “My family does a good job of being my support system. They keep me level-headed, that’s why I would say them. They bring a lot of positivity to my life, and that keeps everything neutral with all the bad that may go on, or Ls in losing games, but we’ll be better. You just have to take it to the bank and run with it.”

On a national scale, Young receives the most fan criticism, and attention, on the Hawks this season. In the tight community of Hawks fans and writers, however, the title arguably goes to Prince. The third-year forward had high expectations for him this season after enjoying a strong post-All-Star Break period last season and giving superstars like Kevin Durant buckets and swatting Sacramento Kings guard Buddy Hield in summer pickup highlights. Now on a nightly basis, many fans have called out his effort on the defensive end of the floor and his isolationist tendencies on the offensive end.

From the regular criticism and social media jokes on Prince’s flaws, headlined by him taking the “Taurean Prince will shoot” mantra that originated a few years ago with Mike Scott, there are many examples.

He sees them all, and he lets you know by leaving a like to the comments.

“[I] just let them know I’m there, really,” Prince said, before giving strong eye contact. “Letting them know that it’s not being unseen, and they’re entitled to their own opinion so I’m not necessarily mad at them. They can do and say as they please, but I just hope they’ll choke on their words later.”

It’s been a tough season for Prince on the court up to this point, but he still sees a light at the end of the tunnel for himself and the team that he’s heard other teammates describe as “the most together team in the NBA.”

“As far as the All-Star break, to get what it is, a break is well-needed for everybody in the locker room,” he said. “[It will be good] to come back with a rejuvenated feeling, and finish out the season.”