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Taurean Prince emerging as strong off-ball scorer for Atlanta Hawks

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Taurean Prince finished the 2017-18 season with an offensive fury. In his last 17 games during that campaign, he averaged 19.9 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting from the floor and 39.5 percent from beyond the three-point line. A massive leap from his previous statistics, there were plenty of questions as to what to make of it. It was certainly a small sample size. Also, there were not a ton of good offensive players on the roster with whom he would need to compete to earn scoring opportunities. However, many observers took some optimism about the future of the then second-year wing. “Would Prince enter the 2018-19 season as the team’s best player?” was a frequently debated question as the roster was reformed over the offseason.

There was also a question about Prince regarding what his role would be under a new coaching staff. The Hawks had drafted a young, talented point guard they hoped would be able to handle a lot of the responsibility for offensive creation. They drafted another perimeter player later in the first round that had some potential to help with creating good shots for his teammates, as well as engulf some of Prince’s three-point shooting opportunities. They seem, thus far, to have hit on those targets, which has allowed Prince to play within a role of providing offensive spacing by being a shooting threat at the three-point line on the weak-side of the offensive formation.

In that role, especially as of recent, the third-year forward has performed at an elite level.

I charted all 57 offensive possessions categorized as a “spot-up” opportunities since his return from injury mid-January. The results are below.

Note that the two possessions marked as “spot-up” were not catch-and-shoot opportunities and they were plays on which he did not deal with a close-out defender.

The stats suggest that Prince is benefitting from the attention opposing defenses are allocating to the Hawks’ leaders scorers, John Collins and Trae Young. It also suggests that on the offensive end of the court, he is doing his job and doing it quite well.

Why is this important? Well, when an NBA player is not projected to reach a star level status, one of the important questions that gets raised is “does have a single elite skill?” And it seems that Prince is demonstrating an emergence, if the performance is sustained, as one of the best off-ball scorers in the league.

Last season, Prince was basically an average producer on spot up possessions; he measured in the 49th percentile. This season, he is measuring in the 91st percentile. Since his return from injury, the Hawks are generating an offensive rating of 131.5 on Prince’s spot-up possessions.

This also suggests that opposing teams might prioritize forcing Prince to deal with a close-out defender more frequently going forward. In the sample since his return from injury, Atlanta is producing an offensive rating of 105.0 when that’s the case. That’s almost exactly the offensive rating the team has on the season, which ranks 26th in the league.

Scouting reports for games in the near future might contain phrases regarding how to defend Prince such as “chase him off the three-point line” or “force him to make a decision as a passer.”

Let’s take a look at some of his play in these situations since his return from injury.

Prince uses excellent balance and a high release point to put up confident perimeter shots even when a defender is in the vicinity.

In charting his spot-up possessions, it was easy to see that Prince is significantly making more shots when the passes to him are delivered on target, but it does not necessarily have to be within the frame of his abdomen. Opposing defenses often determine the elevation of a pass. In this case, Prince has to collect a pass above his head. But it is on target, in that allows him to land and launch with balance.

This is an example of Prince collecting a pass at his feet. He is still able to maintain his balance and get his shot off in an efficient manner.

Most of the shots Prince takes when the pass is not on target result in a miss, as seen on this play. It should be noted that off-target passes are not always the fault of the passer. The player spotting up has to work with the ball handler to create a solid and safe passing lane.

When Prince is able to create points after dealing with a close out defender, it relates to a common theme: balance. On this play he stays under control, works for the simple play, and gets a nice look from the right baseline.

During his successful offensive stretch at the end of last season Prince often flashed the use of an impressive step-back jumper to get separation from his defender. He uses it on this play to convert a bucket after dealing with the close-out attempt from Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic.

We see him use it here to create an open look from behind the arc after dealing with Iman Shumpert’s close-out attempt.

When Prince is not successful when trying to beat a defender who has chased him off of the three-point line, it’s usually when he does something like dribbling into a tough shot attempt. Here he tries to work through the smaller Jordan McRae but is not strong enough to get a high percentage attempt.

At other times, Prince dribbles into an already crowded paint as he does on this play. If Omari Spellman had shown a little more sense of urgency on this possession creating a passing lane, Prince may have read the play and moved the ball to him for a would-be open three-point attempt. Contrast the set up and getting his hands up by Kevin Huerter to the less-urgent Spellman. The rookie big man usually plays with a plus motor, but there is a potential missed opportunity on this play.

When generating very high percentage shot attempts in these situations, it’s when Prince demonstrates recognition, as in this case, when there is not a natural rim protector on the floor.

If opposing teams do work harder to chase him off of the three-point line, Prince will need to demonstrate some growth as a ball handler and passer. When he looks to make the simple play in these areas, he is generally successful.

However, there are times when the former Baylor standout makes a play harder than it has to be. If the Hawks are able to continue forcing opposing defenses to allocate additional defenders at the primary point of attack, it will open up shot attempts from one of the more successful off-ball scorers in the league.