Unless the Rockets and Timberwolves collapse this season, the Hawks will have (at least) three first-round picks in the 2018 draft, including what’s likely to be their own selection in the lottery. If LeBron James stays in Cleveland, the Hawks almost certainly will have an extra first-round pick in the 2019 draft.
With those five “swings of the bat,” as GM Travis Schlenk likes to say, the Hawks hope to draft the superstar player necessary for championship contention. That will take a lot of luck. But if the Hawks hope to one day be an elite team, they also will need starter-quality players with reasonable contracts to go around that hypothetical superstar
One of those key young players is Taurean Prince, the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft. He’s already logged 841 minutes this season (most on the team) after playing 981 minutes in all of 2016-17, so we make a fair comparison of his numbers this season compared to last (with the caveat that’s he a full-time starter now and so playing against better players more often).
Offense is the area in which Prince had the most room for improvement, and there’s no question he’s better. His offensive impact doesn’t show up in on/off court—the Hawks have scored the same amount of points per 100 possessions (103.5) with Prince on the court vs. off—but it does in every other metric.
Taurean Prince, offense
*Offensive Box Plus-Minus
+Defensive Real Plus-Minus
Prince has significantly increased his efficiency, scoring and passing production with a higher usage rate, which is ideal. Prince is driving to the basket even more frequently this season, though not getting to the rim as often. He’s also taking more shots in the mid-range and still isn’t shooting well from that area, but he’s improved his three-point shooting from 32.1 percent to 42.1 percent. (Coincidentally, as of today Prince is taking the exact same ratio of two-pointers to three-pointers as he did last season).
Opponents now must respect Prince’s three-point shot, which makes him even more effective as a driver. And my observation Prince is better on drives because he no longer tries to just muscle his way to the basket most times and instead uses angles, hesitation and misdirection to slip past and between defenders.
“(Three-point shooting) is serving me pretty well right now,” Prince said. “It allows me to get to the rim a lot easier. I still have a lot of work to do as far as footwork.”
But while Prince’s offense has improved, his defensive metrics have slipped this season.
*Defensive Box Plus-Minus
+Defensive Real Plus-Minus
The Hawks have allowed 2.4 points per 100 possessions fewer with Prince on the bench. No doubt that number is influenced by sharing the floor with Schroder, a bad defender, for 615 minutes. But Prince’s performance also has declined in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, which aims to adjust for quality of teammates and opponents. Prince ranked tied for fourth among NBA small forwards last season in DRPM but is 54th this year, and his blocks and steals percentages have decreased significantly (though his defensive rebounding production has improved).
Subjectively, I’d say there are stretches during games when Prince isn’t fully engaged defensively, especially when he’s not getting calls on drives to the basket. I wouldn’t say Prince has been bad defensively, and it’s not easy being a wing defender in today’s NBA, but Prince showed he could do it better as a rookie.
“I always want to make sure I fly around on defense, be active,” Prince said. “I feel like if I’m just out there going through the motions I’m not as good of a player. It’s not always about making shots.”
Prince’s performance against the Cavaliers last night is the latest game to hint at his potential.
Prince scored 24 points while taking just 10 shots. He got to the free-throw line and made his attempts (6-for-6), and recorded six assists against two turnovers. And Prince was an integral part of his team’s defensive plan to make LeBron James a passer—James obliged and carved up the Hawks, but not because Prince didn’t make him work for it.
Prince frequently says his goal is to be considered among the best players in the league. His dramatic offensive improvement in Year 2 has him on that path. If Prince can get back to playing elite defense,
“I’m still 23—I guess you can say I’m young,” Prince said. “I’ve got a long way to go, man. I’ve got a lot of things to get better at. You see guys like LeBron, he gets better at something every year. I think people are seeing this is one of his best years, yet, statistically and efficiently. So that just goes to show you, you can never stop working from Year 1 all the way up to 15.”
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