Teams that can’t seem to find their identity, as the Minnesota Timberwolves have struggled to do all season, need to find any foothold they can. Perhaps the best thing for these kinds of squads is a player who can be relied upon to do the right thing over and over.
Taurean Prince is one of those players, but Minnesota hasn’t been able to rely on his services as he missed 20 games with a shoulder injury. But he was back Wednesday to face the Portland Trail Blazers, and he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
Prince’s impact came in the details of the game. He didn’t put up wild numbers (11 points, two rebounds) but he was decisive and correct on so many of his choices — choices that repeatedly gave the Wolves an edge and that many of Minnesota’s other players may have fumbled.
For example, he got a couple of buckets by using off-ball movement to set himself up to attack the basket. The Wolves’ recent six-game losing streak was marred by iso ball, but Prince is able to inject some kinetic energy when he’s in the game by navigating to open spaces and making quick decisions.
Look how he drives away from the direction he cut in. It’s a simple thing and by no means ensures an open look, but it sets the opponent up so Prince can get by him without a ball fake.
There’s a similar unembellished effectiveness in Prince’s willingness to fill the lane in transition. Anyone who was concerned about how Prince would look physically in his return had their mind set at ease with these hard pushes to the basket.
These kinds of straightforward decisions are why he can shoot five-of-six in his first game back after an extended absence.
Prince had his moments on defense, too, most notably with two charges drawn in the second half. The second of those came with the Wolves up seven and 2:17 to play, a moment that helped Minnesota take control down the stretch.
The anticipation he displays to beat Anfernee Simons to the spot in the first clip and the ground he covers to hop into place before Shaedon Sharpe takes off in the second are evidence of a player assured in his reads. Minnesota just doesn’t have a ton of guys who see the game this clearly and make the simple plays.
Prince’s physical tools combine with his basketball IQ to help him compete with elite players on certain possessions. Jerami Grant torched Minnesota for much of the night by shooting over his defender, but here Prince’s length and recovery time dissuade Grant from taking what initially appeared to be a wide open layup. He instead opts for a tough fadeaway, which Prince makes difficult by getting a long arm in Grant’s eye line.
These displays of simple excellence are the meat and potatoes of Prince’s game; plays like this stepback three are the gravy, the added flavor that Minnesota doesn’t necessarily rely on but surely appreciates.
Prince’s background as a higher usage player helped him build the skill to pull out a surprising move such as this every once in a while, a way to counter the defense when it takes away the straightforward option he’ll usually opt for.
Prince is so crucial because he is an all-around player on a roster full of guys who put constraints on what the Wolves can do. Looking up and down Minnesota’s roster, you see players who will be targeted on one end of the floor, minimize offensive spacing or consistently make poor decisions. Prince doesn’t have one of those game-changing weaknesses.
That’s why he played 20 minutes and got the nod in crunch time in his first game back after over a month away. He fit right back in as if nothing had happened because he can adapt his game to what the Wolves need rather than the other way around.
He’s not the only player on this team who possesses that quality, but the squad’s relative lack of those archetypes makes each of them that much more important. It’s safe to say that Minnesota will enjoy having him back.