Why We Watch: Tayshaun Prince, Reach and Grasp

Tayshaun Prince: more than a great pair of arms.
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There are, right off the bat, the arms. Not rippled or robustly tattooed or ropy or especially intimidating, really. Just a pair of giraffe-necks that sprout from Tayshaun Prince's shoulders, each long enough to put a small ladder company out of business. In some alternate reality in which Prince did not become an NBA player—once-upon-a-time holding his own as an iron man/match-up nightmare on five different Pistons teams that at worst reached the Eastern Conference Finals—these arms would still earn Prince some neighborhood-scale fame. He could have changed light bulbs, removed cats from tree limbs without more than a stretch and a hop. He also would have had a hard time finding shirts that fit right. Instead, Prince has used them to earn tens of millions of dollars, and more recently to change the outcome of an important professional basketball game.

This is notable because Prince, who has been a dominant college player and Olympic Gold Medalist—yes, in basketball—seems even easier to forget about than ever at the age of 33. Because he's quiet, because he is not an especially prolific highlight-maker, and because his superpower is his weaponized gangliness, Prince has always been easy to miss and reliably underrated. But he's still here, and the combination of his calm, steady playing style, playoff experience, and yes, those arms, have protracted Prince’s career. Right now he’s an important player in the Western Conference Semifinals, for a very good Memphis Grizzlies team. And we're still somehow looking past him.

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The Memphis Grizzlies knew they had to lose Rudy Gay’s contract, both because it was one of the worst in basketball and because they’re the Memphis Grizzlies. The late-season deal that enabled them to do so was decried at the time—both by coach Lionel Hollins and smart people like Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski—as a shameful capitulation. If Prince's presence in the deal was noted at all, it was as window-dressing: the player who would help Memphis maintain its status as a fringe contender after dealing their star scorer. 

The results are official on that deal, by the way: It worked. Beautifully. The Grizzlies were a dominant basketball team with Prince on the court this season, outscoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions behind elite defense and a league-average offense that ground itself through possessions but was still able to find decent looks when needed. That they're not necessarily a pleasure to watch is both besides the point and something like the point. That it's difficult to see how Prince has contributed to this, though, is part of what makes Prince so valuable, and so paradoxically easy to overlook.

With Prince on the court the Grizzlies scored 106.9 points per 100 possessions; when he sat that number dropped to 97.3. That trend has continued into the playoffs, with the numbers indicating that Prince holds subtle but very real value on both sides of the ball. When he plays, Memphis is 9.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent. When he sits, they’re 13.7 worse, per NBA.com/Stats. Admittedly, a lot of this has to do with Prince playing nearly all his minutes beside at least one member of the NBA’s most talented frontline—Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph—and often them both at the same time. A great deal of the credit surely belongs to Prince himself, though.

This seems surprising, maybe, given the trans-Siberian voyage he experienced from 2009 to the end of last January while playing with some hopeless, aimless Pistons teams. But Prince is once again a relevant player capable of having an impact on the big picture.

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Right now, Prince is covering Kevin Durant. That’s his actual assignment, and in the first four games of this series it’s been a miserable one. It is easy to imagine how a conversation might have gone between coach and player beforehand, with Hollins sidling up to Prince in the locker room and saying something like: “Hey, Tayshaun. Yes, so, moving forward, we’re putting you on Kevin. Sure, sure, you’ll have help. Don’t worry. But just so we’re clear, you might get eviscerated as millions watch you fail. Cool? Fantastic.”

Prince doesn't show much emotion one way or the other, but he has embraced this run-into-a-buzzsaw assignment with the masochistic zeal that befits the player who used his tree limb length to take Kobe Bryant out of the 2004 Finals. What he’s doing on Durant is incredibly difficult, but should be commended and recognized. Durant shot 66.7% in 51 minutes against Memphis this season with Prince not on the court, and 39.3%, on 61 shots, with Prince playing, according to NBA.com/Stats. Prince will lose the battle 9.99 times out of 10—any of his NBA peers would—but it’s all as a greater sacrifice so Memphis can win the war. 

On offense, Prince is an appropriate fit with his new team. The Grizzlies don’t particularly enjoy having many offensive possessions—they finished the regular season 29th in pace—and instead focus on squeezing the most out of the fewest half-court sets possible as they grind their way to methodical victory. Prince is perfect for this approach as a player who rarely makes critical mistakes and turns the ball over once a week. The only recurring beef among analytics types with Prince's game is that he loves (LOVES!) pump-faking at the three-point line, then taking one step past his defender for a 20-foot jump shot, the infamous Least Efficient Shot In Basketball and a special bugaboo of efficiency-minded stat heads like… well, like Memphis boss John Hollinger. In the playoffs, each Prince pump-fake probably takes a full 24 hours off John Hollinger’s life. He's lost over a week so far.

Overall, though, Prince makes up for it by being so smart with ball movement on the offensive end, reading the defense’s rotation towards him as it happens and regularly whipping the ball to the next man on the perimeter for an open shot. And despite handling the ball much more than you’d expect, Prince basically never turns it over, which is remarkable and incredibly important in an offense as starved for easy opportunity as the Grizzlies. They rarely run plays solely designed to put him in a scoring position, but Hollins has instituted a few screen-the-screener sets and some designs involving a flare screen by Randolph to get Prince open and keep him happy.

From the outside that strategy works for everybody involved. Prince is poker-faced even by the standards of NBA veterans, and doesn't seem especially high-strung by any stretch. Instead, he shows every sign of being someone who enjoys knowing his role and doing it; the sort who orders the same drink (if he’s even a drinker) with the same meal each time he visits his favorite restaurant.

There is no shame in this embrace of predictability and half-grim focus on the labor at hand. Yes, there are no surprises or new flavors. But Prince is 33 years old, and has never seemed especially prone to chase thrills. He, and we, know that he will deliver a heavy dosage of pull up, mid-range jumpers, turn around baby hooks, and perfectly timed spot up threes. It’s a recipe that’s worked for years, and will continue to work, albeit to a slightly less productive degree, moving forward. His contract puts him in Memphis for the life of their pseudo title-contending future, expiring in 2015 along with those of Randolph and Gasol and one year before Mike Conley Jr. He doesn't seem worried about that, or anything else. His reach is the same as his grasp, and his reach is as impressive as ever.


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