“…and it shows!”
Commonalities between Dominique Wilkins and Taurean Prince? Both were drafted by the Utah Jazz and later traded to the Atlanta Hawks, who happen play the Jazz in Salt Lake City tonight (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain in SLC), before their rookie seasons. Both wear, or wore, a ‘1’ and a ‘2’ on their Atlanta jerseys. And both are coming into their own during their Age-23 seasons with the Hawks, although not for much longer.
Taurean crosses into Age 24 a couple days from now, and the Aries suddenly finds himself ramming his way upwards in his young NBA career. Prince elevated his March-long scoring average to 21.5 PPG (46.6 3FG%) by matching his career high, from earlier this month, of 38 points (9-for-13 2FGs, 8-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ entertaining 122-117 loss in Milwaukee on Sunday.
Over the course of Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s tenure, I’ve had to learn not to freak out and give up too prematurely on the Budwings, who are constantly under development behind the scenes, fine-tuning their unique, individual skills to suit their team’s long-term objectives, and taking plenty of lumps along the way.
From Kyle to DeMarre to Thabo to Baze to Timmy, the narrative now applies to Taurean, who has morphed from near-replacement-level talent in January (9.1 PPG, 34.8 FG%, minus-9.6 net rating) to a more reliable offensive cog (63.4 March TS%, 15th among NBA players getting 30+ MPG) during his team’s meticulously planned swoon. With each game in just his second season, Prince is transforming Hawks’ fan opinions from, “If he doesn’t figure out his defensive shortcomings, he’s useless,” to “If he ever figures out his defensive shortcomings, watch out!”
It’s on the road where the Hawks turn to Prince (15.2 road PPG and 45.3 road FG%; 12.0 and 39.3 FG% at Philips) to attack inside, and score or get fouled trying. He has been picking his perimeter shots more judiciously away from home (4.93 road 3FGAs per game, 5.76 at home), although the Bucks game was an outlier narrowing that differential (4-for-13 3FGs on Sunday).
Atlanta will turn to Taurean even more this evening, as rookie John Collins (Zaza’d in Milwaukee by the Greek Freak, out with an ankle sprain) sits at least this one out. Interior scoring for Prince, Dennis Schröder and the Hawks will be a much harder bargain, certainly, with the stifling Rudy Gobert (NBA-highs of 26.2 Net Rating and 72.1 TS% for 30+ MPG players; 25 double-doubles) holding down the fort for the torrid Jazz (40-30), who aim to stretch their undefeated month to 10-0 tonight.
Remember when undefeated calendar months were kind of a big deal? Getting to 15-0 will require Utah to win not only tonight but also at San Antonio, at G-State, and back home versus Boston. That’s a slate that’s not nearly as daunting as it once looked, given their upcoming opponents’ injury issues. And this is a team that went 11-0 right before the All-Star Break, a stretch that began not long after losing Thabo Sefolosha for the season. Utah was 14th in team D-Rating before Thabo was shelved; they’re #1 (97.7 D-Rating) since. Go, Coach Thabo!
The 4-Man combo of Gobert, Ricky Rubio, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles represent the top four NBA players in Net Rating this month. Former Bud acolyte Quin Snyder is rolling into this matchup without starting power forward Derrick Favors (sore knee), who is having a bit of a renaissance year himself (career-high 58.3 2FG%).
The arrival of Rookie of the Year finalist Mitchell (10-for-13 2FGs in Saturday’s close-shave 103-97 win vs. SAC) effectively alleviated Favors from having to step up offensively in the aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s departure, and he has responded with efficient scoring in exchange for a lightened workload. Villa Rican and former Cavalier forward Jae Crowder will be likely to fill in on Favors’ behalf. With Jae closing games in place of Favors, Utah’s 5-man unit has produced a league-best 76.4 D-Rating and 41.8 Net Rating, according to stats reported by the Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah has gone a sterling 22-4 since Rudy returned from injury, back on January 19. However, that first 11-game winning run was preceded by a sour note by the Jazz. Namely, a 104-90 loss in Atlanta back on January 22, where the cited quartet of Rubio, Mitchell, Ingles and Gobert combined to score just 29 points while committing 15 player turnovers.
The low-paced game remained a tight affair until Schröder and Prince (combined 37 points, 11-for-23 2FGs, 9-for-9 FTs) helped the Hawks break it open in the third quarter. Prince was particularly pernicious scoring off Jazz turnovers, particularly his steals (three) off a sloppy Mitchell and Rubio. The second steal-and-layup gave the Hawks a lead they would not again relinquish, and his dime to Mike Muscala (a probable starter today, in place of Collins; double-digit scoring in 3 of past 5 games) following his final theft opened up a 23-point lead that made Utah’s fourth-quarter scramble purely academic.
This time around, Coach Quin will rely upon Rubio to make better decisions with the ball for the possession-hogging Jazz. Backup ballhandler and former Hawks draft-and-tradee Raul Neto is out indefinitely with a wrist fracture. Son-of-a-legend David Stockton is around on a ten-day to help fill the gap. But the Jazz will use the remaining games as a critical opportunity to rework 2014 lotto pick Dante Exum (10 points in 14 minutes vs. PHX, during his season-debut last Thursday) back into the rotation before the playoffs start.
Defensive efficiency (115.4 March D-Rating, 29th in NBA) has remained a problem for the Hawks (20-50, seven straight road losses) throughout their latest six-game slide. But when they’re active forcing their foes into mistakes, not just the live-ball variety, Atlanta can have the look of a near-.500 team (6-8 when opponents’ turnover percentage > 17.0%, as per bball-ref).
When Taurean makes the right defensive reads and doesn’t get caught out of position blindly fishing for steals (15 in Atlanta’s 20 wins; 54 in their 50 defeats), the final quarters of games can get downright scary these days… for a variety of reasons. Prince may struggle tonight, with the halfcourt lanes closed and one less scoring threat on the floor. But as he figures things out over time, look for Taurean’s gameday film to continue including more Highlight, and less Human.
Let’s Go Hawks!