It’s summer — popsicles, beaches, campfires and summer love. As the heat rises, time slows and crushes develop. We’re leaning into that amorous mood this week at The Step Back, sharing our sophomore crushes. Last year may have given us an uninspiring rookie class, but we’re feeling pretty enamored with the future.
In a league moving increasingly closer to a bunch of 6-foot-8ish guys who can all shoot, dribble, pass and defend, Taurean Prince is slowly but surely growing into precisely that for the Hawks. He barely saw the floor before mid-February, buried under Atlanta head coach Mike Budenholzer’s unwillingness to trust rookies to play the type of defense he requires. The last two months of the season were nothing to write home about from a productivity perspective, but Prince played in every game down the stretch and started all six playoff games in the Hawks’ first-round loss against Washington.
The team that drafted him is very, very different from the team on which Prince will find himself when Atlanta takes the floor in mid-October to open the regular season. After starting last season either fifth or sixth on the wing depth chart, depending on how Budenholzer felt about him versus fellow rookie DeAndre’ Bembry on a given night, Prince will go into the 2017-18 season as the entrenched starter, playoff-tested and ready to contribute. Sure, the departure of literally everybody between him and that starting spot cleared the way, but he earned it long before the team decided to blow things up over the summer.
He showed flashes defensively of being a primary stopper — someone the Hawks have needed for years as they’ve been bounced year after year by teams with strong perimeter play. Atlanta has never had someone to match up with the larger wings in the league. Kent Bazemore could have been that guy, but he never really had the size to contend with LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Prince will be thrown into the fire next season in that role and it will be incredibly interesting to see if he sinks or swims.
Offensively, Prince seemed to be allergic to dribble drives; he put the ball down toward the basket less than noted offensive superstar Tony Allen. When he did, the results weren’t awful — he looks fluid with the ball in his hands and is able to find the right pass more often than some of his peers at the combo forward position. His outside shot isn’t great, but that should come along with more time and experience.
Prince draws very early, very rough comparisons to Kawhi Leonard — he has similar size and defensive upside as well as an extremely raw offensive game. It’s exceedingly unlikely Prince will ever get to Leonard’s heights on either end of the floor, but the model is there for his improvement under Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant coach. A larger role on a much worse team will allow him the opportunity to break out of his shell and take control of the game in all facets, if he’s up to the task.