Hawks’ Taurean Prince emerging as efficient 3-point threat in Year 2

ATLANTA — The Heat saw the warning signs.

Taurean Prince knocked down a career-high five 3-pointers three days prior to Miami’s visit to Philips Arena, and yet within one minute of the opening tip-off on Monday night the Atlanta Hawks’ second-year forward freed himself on the right wing off a dummy pin-down screen for a back-cutting Kent Bazemore. Two minutes later, Heat defenders closed out too slowly in transition. At the quarter’s halfway mark, Miami brought help defense on a pick-and-roll, leaving Prince wide open in far corner.

In all three instances, the 2016 lottery pick did not hesitate.

“We’re actually sometimes wrestling with him just to shoot it more,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He wants to drive. He wants to attack. He wants to get to the basket. I think he’ll always have somewhat of a balance. He’s not just gonna become a catch-and-shoot guy. We’re actually just pushing him to shoot more, shoot more.”

Prince finished off his outing against the Heat with four 3-pointers in a 110-104 win, fortifying his burgeoning reputation of one of the league’s most improved shooters both in terms of efficiency and volume. In 44 fewer minutes than he played his entire rookie season, Prince has already knocked down 22 more 3-pointers, only two behind veteran wing Marco Belinelli for the team lead.

“It’s just about letting the defense make a mistake and making them pay for it,” said Prince, who has scored a career-high 24 points in two of Atlanta’s past four games. ” … (Defenses) have to help at some point. If you do it, just gotta make you pay for it.”

Thirteen NBA players have attempted at least 100 3-pointers and converted at a 43 percent clip or better this season, including the usual sharpshooting suspects Kyle Korver (Cavaliers), Klay Thompson (Warriors) and C.J. McCollum (Trail Blazers). Among those players, Prince’s 10.9-point increase in his outside shooting percentage is the largest year-over-year jump — discounting New Orleans wing Darius Miller, who played in the G-League and Germany over the past two years — and it harkens back to the dramatic improvement of former Hawks wing DeMarre Carroll, an inescapable comparison for Atlanta’s 23-year-old wing. Crucially for a rebuilding organization, Prince also happens to be the youngest of that 13-player club.

If Carroll was Exhibit A in the effectiveness of Hawks University skill development, Prince represents the possible next step — a younger player who enrolled with a better baseline set of skills, particularly in the shooting department.

Former Hawks assistant Quin Snyder tore Carroll’s shot down and rebuilt it from the ground up. That was not necessary for Prince. The Baylor product shot 37.6 percent from 3-point range in his four seasons on campus, and Atlanta’s scouting department viewed his solid 6-foot-8 frame as a positive when the line moved out.

Envisioning NBA-level “3-and-D” potential required little imagination.

“We felt like when he first came in last year that he was going to be able to be a good catch-and-shoot player,” Budenholzer said. “He’s got just the physical strength that — sometimes people don’t realize how deep the 3-point line is, and he just shoots it easily.”

Prince’s form shows little sign of alteration.

His 7-foot wingspan still creates the similar high release point regardless of shot selection — spot-up, off screens, pull-up. He boasts a quick release considering his length and, as Draft Express noted during the 2016 draft run-up, he’s capable of squaring his shoulders from various shooting positions. But after finishing his first regular season draining 33 of his 102 3-pointers (12th in efficiency among rookies with triple-digit attempts), the coaching staff went to work knowing it needed to replace long-range volume provided by Korver, Tim Hardaway Jr., Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Dunleavy, among others.

In total, 399 of Atlanta’s 729 3-pointers made during the 2016-17 campaign did not return to the roster.

Assistant coaches Ben Sullivan and Chris Jent focused on reenforcing Prince’s shooting fundamentals this offseason.

“Just teaching me the basics: footwork, balance. Just tweaking little things — not my form or anything, but just minor mechanics to help me succeed,” said Prince, the organization’s ultimate return in the Jeff Teague trade in June 2016. “Release points. Hand placement. Same form, but more balance. Even being ready to shoot before you catch the ball.”

Prince’s across-the-board improvement is evident by practically every offensive metric.

2016-17 2017-18
3-Pointers Made 33 55
3-Point % 32.4 43.3
3-Point Rate 35.8 38.3
Catch-and-Shoot 3P% 33.7 46.3
Corner 3-Point % 34.1 54.8
Offensive Rating 96 101

If the first three months of his second NBA season offer any foreshadowing, Budenholzer and the front office’s prediction on Prince’s catch-and-shoot abilities are starting to become reality.

Prince is one of four players with 50 or more catch-and-shoot 3-pointers converting on at least 45 percent of his attempts this season, joining Korver, Thompson and Miller. Considering the other three play for three of the league’s top nine teams in offensive rating – blessed with attention-stealing superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins demanding help-side rotations at all times — the second-year wing is the NBA’s conspicuous spot-up sniper so far. (Even when lowering the threshold to 50 catch-and-shoot 3s attempted this season, Prince ranks 11th in the league.)

Prince discusses his game in building-block terms, hinting at a planned evolution for which he’s laying the foundation.

“That’s the starting point for a lot of shooters. Ray Allen, guys like that, catch-and-shoot guys. Some of the greatest shooters in the game to ever shoot a basketball were catch-and-shoot guys,” said Prince, who mentioned a sizable portion of his practice repetitions have been of the catch-and-shoot variety since his junior year at Baylor. “Sooner or later, I’ll be able to graduate from that and do a lot more off the dribble, but for now I’m playing my part and producing and getting better as time goes on.”

This is often by design, of course.

Budenholzer & Co. needed to replace every significant wing contributor besides Kent Bazemore this summer, leading to Prince’s minutes doubling and his usage ticking up.

Both coach and player mentioned the offensive scheme often tucks Prince on the weak side of the floor, daring defenders to help off of a player burying more than half his corner 3-point attempts this season. And if they do drift toward the lane? “I’m there for the opposite swing,” Prince said. “It’s all set up.”

Catch-and-Shoot 3-Point %
(min. 50 3FG made)
Klay Thompson, Warriors 47.1
Darius Miller, Pelicans 46.4
Taurean Prince, Hawks 46.3
Kyle Korver, Cavaliers 46.1

Budenholzer elaborated: “Certainly sometimes we’re intentionally putting him in spots and putting him where, you know, hopefully it’s either a shot for him or an attempt at the basket or at the rim, for somebody else. I think just the natural flow of our offense — not always, but hopefully more often than not — it has good spacing and people are getting to corners.”

It’s also a primary reason why 96.4 percent of Prince’s made 3s have arrived off teammates’ assists. He’s finding himself in better positions on the court, either through play design or an evolving feel for spacing, and converting on his opportunities.

Prince said he’s noticing defenders are more wary of helping off him now, which creates more interior space to operate for point guard Dennis Schröder and necessitates adding creative ways of finding space to his arsenal: dummy pin-down screens before popping out to the 3-point line, transition opportunities and punishing aggressive close-outs by attacking the rim. Now that opponents have been issued a clear warning, adjustments will be necessary.

Regardless, it sounds like a well-kept secret is making its way into scouting reports: Through 30 games, Taurean Prince claims catch-and-shoot numbers sandwiched between Kyle Korver and Klay Thompson, a developmental bright spot for a franchise banking on young talent to emerge.