With the 2017 NBA Draft less than 24 hours away, it’s time to reflect on year 1 of our 1st selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, Taurean Prince.
When Jeff Teague said his farewells to the only team he’d known during the course of his first 7 years in the NBA, he left a parting gift for the city of Atlanta and the Hawks organization. This gift, courtesy of general manager Wes Wilcox and president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer, came in the form of the 12th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Not even 36 hours later, the Hawks were on the clock for the 1st of their two first-round picks.
Following an out of nowhere pick by the Bucks to acquire Thon Maker and a draft day deal that landed Domantas Sabonis in Oklahoma City and Serge Ibaka in Orlando, all eyes were on the Hawks as fans waited to see who they would pick after such little preparation to draft in the lottery. Audible screams of “Skal! Get Skal!” and “We want Valentine!” could be heard all throughout Philips Arena as fans attended the Hawks annual Draft Party. As Adam Silver walked to the podium to announce the pick, a part of me thought the Hawks were going to select a player that none of the “experts” expected. This had become a trend as of recent years. Sure enough, “With the 12th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks select, Taurean Waller-Prince out of Baylor University!”
To the casual NBA fan, Taurean Prince is known as the guy who explained to the media what exactly constitutes a rebound. Those who followed college basketball on a more advanced level probably knew him as Baylor’s top player, a guy who could score, rebound, and defend at a high level. For those of us in Philips Arena at the time of the selection, our collective thoughts could be best summarized as, “Ummm… Okay. Taurean Prince huh? He seems decent. Let’s see how this works out.” Funny enough, this entire situation played out once again at pick 21 with DeAndre’ Bembry, but that’s a story for another time.
The more fans, including myself, got to watch game highlights and draft workout videos of Taurean Prince, the more optimistic we became about his future as a Hawk. This was backed up by his on-court production during the 2016 NBA Summer League. Through 3 games, Prince averaged 13.7 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals per contest. While his shooting percentages were subpar, 38% from inside the arc and 25% from beyond, his 94% conversion rate from the charity stripe showed signs of a reliable shot that would come with time. Taurean made the most of his opportunity by showcasing a silky-smooth midrange shot, acrobatic finishes through traffic, and lock down defense.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 2016-2017 NBA Regular Season. It was time for Taurean to prove that his success in the Summer League wasn’t a fluke, and that he belonged in the association. As is accustomed to nearly every rookie’s first lap in the league, Taurean experienced his fair share of ups and downs. One night he would get a 4 minute spurt in the first half, followed by a few DNP-CD’s, finally rounded off by a 19 minute stretch of action here and there. He made the most of his ample opportunities to start the year, shooting over 47% through November and averaging 12.8 points per 36 minutes. He would occasionally get every fans attention with the highlight dunks he was known for at Baylor, such as his poster jam on Greg Monroe on November 16th. He could also be seen overly celebrating plays on the bench in sort of a Bazemore-esque role. Two of his most notable celebrations included a very ferocious “dab” following a game winning shot by Dennis Schroder and his mimicry of Kent Bazemore following a corner three.
This trend continued throughout the 2016 calendar year until Taurean began his 1st of two stints in the NBA’s Development League. Through 5 games in the D-League, Taurean Prince averaged 20.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per contest. Even more impressively, this all came on 50% shooting from the field and in only 28.2 minutes per game. He was by far the Long Island Nets’ best player the second he arrived, and it went a long way with improving his confidence and feel for the game. Back with the Hawks for good in early February, Taurean began to see an uptick in minutes with each passing week, a reward for his continued improvement. Some may say his breakout game occurred on Mach 11th against the Memphis Grizzlies, where he accumulated 17 points and 2 steals while only missing one shot in his 31 minutes of action.
Taurean wasn’t done yet. 2 games later, Kent Bazemore goes down with a bruised knee, opening up the opportunity for Taurean to be thrusted in to the starting lineup. This change would eventually become permanent, as Taurean would receive 25-35 minutes on a nightly basis as the team’s starting wing alongside Tim Hardaway Jr. With the rise in minutes came an increase in points per game, as Taurean averaged nearly 11 points per contest following the Memphis game on March 11th. He also dropped a career high 20 points in a 7 point victory against the top-seeded Boston Celtics, a game that was nationally televised on TNT. The Hawks finished with the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference, and a new beast awaited Taurean and his teammates, the playoffs.
Still getting acclimated to his new role, Taurean Prince was relied upon by Coach Bud to be the team’s starting small forward for the 2017 NBA Playoffs, one that featured a first-round matchup against John Wall and the Washington Wizards. For Prince, he was assigned the task of going up against 2017 free agency max contract recipient (probably), Otto Porter. One would expect the nerves of an NBA rookie to be at an all-time high during the playoffs, and perhaps they were, but Taurean didn’t let it impact his poise and level of play. Through 6 games, Taurean continued his high level of play from the end of the regular season, averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds on 56% shooting. When compared to his soon to be $25+ million counterpart, Taurean was the superior player in nearly every facet of the game.
The Hawks went on to lose the series in 6 games, but this city recognized just how special Taurean Prince can be. For Taurean, this is just the beginning. When interviewed by the AJC’s Chris Vivlamore about his plans going forward now that the season was done, Taurean responded, “Definitely be in the gym a lot. Work out with (assistant coach) Charles. I want to be an even better shooter. I want to be more consistent in that area. Work on my handle better to create for myself and other people. Just plan to take my talents to another level and contribute even more next year.” This demeanor and determination to succeed has bode well for a plethora of other NBA players in the past, and Taurean is no exception. As the Hawks face a summer full of uncertainty, one thing is known for sure, Atlanta has their future small forward.