Taurean Prince was probably the most polarizing member of the Atlanta Hawks this season, if not the last two seasons with Dennis Schroder perhaps taking the cake last year. Observers genuinely seem to disagree on what Prince is going to be in the NBA. After a strong month-plus to end the 2017-18 season, there were writers on the national level that expected him to have a breakout 2018-19 campaign, and similar buzz within the fan base, while others have never been willing to go there when it comes to Prince. It must be noted that the swingman did battle a foot injury throughout the season, but largely, he seemed like the same player he was for most of his career, aside from the aforementioned stretch at the end of his sophomore season.
Prince continued to shoot the three ball at a high level, as he always has. That is the biggest draw with Prince; he’s a 6’8 forward with length that can really, really shoot the ball. Prince shot a career-high 39% from three-point range on what was also a career-high 2.2 makes per game. Shooting is the skill that makes him a rotation player at the highest level, and it’s what makes him a dangerous weapon to have.
Prince’s biggest weakness on offense is his ability to find his teammates when they come open, as even notorious chucker Kyle Kuzma had a higher assist percentage than the Hawks’ primary starting small forward this season. Prince has long been known as a shooter, and often becomes a volume shooter, whether it’s necessary for team success or not. He has struggled to fit into the team system at times throughout his career, but it seemed like he began to learn how to play with Trae Young late in the campaign, with declining usage and improved efficiency.
These are the three most-used Atlanta lineups for 2018-19.
You’ll notice Prince is only part of one of those lineups. That lineup has the worst defensive rating of the three, as well as the lowest assist percentage (by a ton) and assist ratio. In some cases, this may not be a fair metric to judge a player on, but considering Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon are part of all three lineups, it is fair to judge the small forward position as a potential x-factor in this case.
The ball movement was (much) better with an alternative option at the small forward position, but that does not necessarily mean the offense was better as a whole without him. Prince is legitimately a great shooter, with a pure and fluid jumper, which is a big reason why the club still employed an above average offensive rating with him on the floor this season.
The offensive rating was, however, effectively the same (slightly higher in fact) with DeAndre’ Bembry on the floor (with the other starters), a considerably worse shooter who thrives going to the rim and finishing/kicking to open teammates, a skill Prince could stand to improve on greatly. Despite shooting a lower effective field goal percentage as well as having a lower true shooting, the club still put up a similar rating with Bembry on the floor instead of Prince with the other four mainstays.
The more alarming note is the whopping 115.8 defensive rating the team endured in those same 324 minutes when Prince was on the floor, which resulted in an overall rating of -3.8. Compare that to the significantly better 103.0 defensive rating with the other four regular starters and Kent Bazemore on the wing across 149 minutes. Prince has taken some tough assignments this season to be fair, and held his own in some cases, but the numbers indicate that the Atlanta Hawks roster was better with him off the floor on the defensive end in 2018-19.
Going forward, Prince absolutely has to be more consistent on defense. To call him out and say it’s purely an effort thing is something I won’t do, because there are non-effort issues with his defense that hold him back. However, if he plans on being the team’s starting small forward as the club moves back into playoff contention, he’ll just have to improve all-around on that end.
This is not meant to be an indictment of Prince’s play as a whole, or to write him off as a potential difference-maker down the road. The facts are that he has some stuff to work on before he’s an impact starter, or even a positive net guy, and he did not make the substantial jump this season that some expected. He battled injuries and the roster was entirely reshaped, but ultimately most of the responsibility falls on the individual.
Perhaps that jump just isn’t going to happen, and maybe that is okay too. With Young in the fold, the ball will be in his hands most of the time, so the need for an elite offensive weapon on the wing has been reduced for the time being, while it would obviously be nice. The club was still a fringe top-10 offense as currently constructed late in the season, for what it’s worth.
Prince is on a nice contract (for now), would be easy to trade, but also fits the three-point fiend-like system Lloyd Pierce has installed. Long-term, assuming the drastic jump doesn’t happen, the former Baylor Bear is likely a rotation player as opposed to full-time starter. He ranked 41st among all small forwards in PER for 2018-19 and 38th in John Hollinger’s Estimated Wins Added, making him relatively a top-10 bench guy at his position, theoretically.
Prince can probably reach closer to that top-30 threshold at his position as the team improves, but it feels like he’s a bench option on a contending team at this stage. This may seem disappointing to some, but considering the Hawks draft capital and cap space this summer, the event that Prince is used off of the bench could simply mean the team is stronger than it was in the past.
It will be interesting to see how Prince looks in the fall, and if he is able to ramp up his productivity and efficiency closer to impact starter-level, a considerable jump from what he’s been so far. He will be entering his fourth year, so time is ticking as far as potential is concerned. If he’s “just” a 6’8 guy with a great three-point shot, he’s still serviceable and he is on a very affordable contract, as previously mentioned.
There seems to have been a vibe within the fanbase in the past that Prince being an impact guy was really important to team success long-term, but with the 2019 draft class coming in soon, that is becoming less true every day. If he breaks out in 2019-20 and becomes that guy, obviously that’s great, but flatly expecting the big jump in between year three and year four isn’t always realistic.