The Washington Wizards are a better team than the Atlanta Hawks. There’s not much heat to be found in that statement, even with Washington’s issues with depth and defense. Yet, these two teams are tied at 2-2 in the first round, fighting to advance.
Strong defense, renewed energy, contributions from their bench and the constant two-way leadership of Paul Millsap has the Hawks back in the series after handily winning Game 3, 116-98 and taking Game 4 111-101. In addition to Millsap’s awesomeness, Dennis Schroder’s scoring and Jose Calderon’s terrific Game 4 (seriously, he had 10 points, five assists, played hard and was a +29 in 20 minutes), rookie wing Taurean Prince has been an integral part of the Hawks’ sudden success.
When the Hawks selected Prince with the 12th overall pick in last year’s draft, it looked like a choice that would take waiting to pay off for anyone who was familiar with Prince’s game.
He has some shooting range, rebounding ability, athleticism, clear defensive talent and potential, and prototypical small forward (and occasional small-ball four) size at 6’8″ and 220 lbs.
The payoff of such attributes and effort has come quickly, though, to the point where Prince has become the first rookie since Thaddeus Young in 2008 to start in their first four playoff games and score at least 10 points in each. In doing so, he’s averaged of 13.3 to go along with 5.3 rebounds and a tremendous 71.0 true shooting percentage in his well-earned 30.5 minutes a night.
For the playoffs so far, the Hawks are 6.3 points per 100 possessions better off when Prince is on the floor, improving on both offense and defense.
Prince has genuinely been one of the Hawks’ best players this series. He’s gone 4-of-8 from three so far and has shot 63.9 percent overall, using a combination of his perimeter shooting, attacks off closeouts and cuts to the basket which have enabled him to fit perfectly into the Hawks’ starting lineup.
It’s an ideal system for him to be in. These Hawks aren’t nearly the same captivating, 60-win team we saw in 2014-15. But Mike Budenholzer has still coached the fourth-ranked defense this season and encourages his players to share the ball and keep the offense fluid (again, not at the same level as years passed, of course).
That’s helped with Prince’s shot selection, and as he carves out a role that doesn’t require him to do too much, he’s been complimenting the veterans around him, unlike most rookies we’ve seen this year.
Take cuts like these, for example. Prince has shown how well he’s learning to move and be a factor off the ball, with this weaving cut through four Wizards defenders in Game 3 and an alley-oop dunk that followed in the fourth quarter creating easy points:
As good as Prince has been, shot selection and not trying to do too much was a fair critique in college. In addition to improving his play off the dribble, it’s something that he’ll need to keep in check as his role inevitably increases going forward.
He can still operate with the ball and attack inside when a defender presses him too closely at the perimeter. These two drives in Game 4 show just how strong Prince is, too:
If we throw things back slightly to Game 1, the two baskets in this clip — a coast-to-coast rebound and finish after contesting Kelly Oubre Jr., and a smooth, scooping layup past Marcin Gortat — show again what Prince can do when he’s aggressive. The second drive, in particular, demonstrates how good he is at getting in the right spots on the floor and seeing potential lanes to attack:
Equally, Prince has a solid stroke on his jumper and is fluid when taking a dribble or two or coming off a screen. These two pull-ups helped him rack up 11 big points on 5-of-7 shooting in Game 4:
As impressive as Prince’s offense has been, though, both inside and out, it’s the confidence and hustle he plays with that separates him from most rookies. In fact, the physicality he brings separates him from some of the Hawks’ older defenders as well.
More so than just size, Prince has the lateral quickness and effort level to cover some guards and the strength to switch to small-ball fours, too. It’s versatility that will only grow in time as his IQ and body mature, but in the meantime, he’ll keep hustling and being a nuisance to his opponents.
Even something as simple as this closeout on Otto Porter shows how much ground Prince can cover in a hurry when he runs hard and puts his length (a 6’11.5″ wingspan) to good use and contests:
That’s not so easy for everyone to do, especially when you’re busy darting around and getting worn out in an attempt to help on John Wall’s blistering speed in the lane.
Here, Prince positioned himself well and waited for just the right moment to swat the ball away from Wall. His fellow Hawks also stepped up and surrounded the Wizards’ fast-break killer (containing Wall in transition is always vital to beating Washington):
Finally, a perfect example of Prince’s hustle. On this play early in Game 3, as Prince watched his team turn the ball over from deep in the corner, he stormed down the court so fast that he still managed to gain ideal positioning and place himself in front of Otto Porter to prevent an easier finish (and likely foul) past Schroder. Prince snatched the ball in a hurry. Then, rather than forcing an awkward layup past Markieff Morris at the other end, Prince dropped in a neat floater:
Prince showed signs of what he can become in the regular season. In a turbulent year for the Hawks and their fans, including the loss of a beloved figure in the form of Kyle Korver’s trade to Cleveland, that promise was enough.
Now, Prince is doing even more on the playoff stage. And he certainly doesn’t shy away from the moment.
However this series turns out (I’m still picking the Wizards to get right and see this through with their elite offense), the Hawks are left looking at their future, pondering exactly what they have in the costly duo of Schroder and Dwight Howard and with Millsap’s pending free agency.
There are questions, concerns and limitations. Plenty of them. But one thing the Hawks do know is that in a year when the draft class has underwhelmed so frequently, they’ve found a gem in Taurean Prince.