The Minnesota Timberwolves are 25-21 with Taurean Prince in the lineup. That is the highest winning percentage of any non-two-way player (shout out Luka Garza) who has played in more than 10 games this year.
Part of that is his indelible impact as one of the few real role players on this team, especially when you account for the fact that Prince is clearly the best off-ball shooter on this team outside of Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s also not hard to see that, considering we are 72 games in, Prince has missed quite a few games as a result of a right shoulder subluxation.
Prince ranks ninth in games played for the Wolves this year. A large majority of those missed contests come from a 20 game injury that lasted from late November to early January, during which the Wolves went a staggering 7-13, but Prince missed a stretch of four games in late January and another two in late February. Ultimately, it was yesterday in only his second start of the year that one thing became clear to me. TP should just be the prototype for the Wolves backup forward minutes, not the solution.
The story of the second-most important Prince the Twin Cities have seen in a while begins when then-President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas dumped the legend of Ricky Rubio to Cleveland for Prince and a second-rounder. After being a vital bench piece for a resurgent Wolves team last season, Prince signed a two-year, $16 million extension this offseason.
As a prototypical 3-and-D wing, Taurean had a very specific role that had earned him said extension. He was by no means the best shooter on that roster, with Malik Beasley flanking him off the bench and Towns and D’Angelo Russell leading the charge as starters, and he was by no means the best defender available in the rotation, which featured Jarred Vanderbilt, Patrick Beverley, and Jaden McDaniels. Prince’s strength was his jack-of-all-trades nature. He was arguably the best middle ground Wolves Head Coach Chris Finch could find while McDaniels struggled to consistently make 3s and Beasley failed to inspire much confidence on the defensive end. That was his sweet spot.
However, less than a year later, Prince finds himself asked to be a more extreme version of his do-it-all archetype. Prince is being asked to be a 3-point specialist. Unfortunately, he is not that.
Even when he’s not hitting his shots, however, Prince is at least helping the team win. When he attempts less than six 3s, the Wolves are 21-20. When he attempts less than four, they stick at one game over .500 at 14-13. This is absolutely nothing in comparison to when he’s making his shots. Staggeringly, whenever Taurean Prince makes more than a single three this season, the Wolves are 10-6.
After trading Russell for Mike Conley, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and a couple of second-round picks, the Wolves are left with a team that lacks shooting. Said shooting is vital to a team that needs spacing for the drives of Anthony Edwards, the floaters of Mike Conley, and the dunks of Rudy Gobert. Prince was asked to fill that void, and unfortunately, he evidently cannot do so alone.
While some may point to the return of KAT as an opportunity to bolster the available shooting, I point to other questionable choices. During a deadline where Saddiq Bey, a younger player of the same ilk as Prince, was linked to the Wolves and was moved for five second rounders, where Cam Reddish and Josh Hart were both moved for each other, where Pepperdine legend Kessler Edwards was not just moved, but was actually attached with cash for the Kings to attain the unfortunate prize of a quality forward, why did the Wolves not add a real wing or 3-point shooter?
The problems of roster construction don’t fall on Prince. He is simply a symptom of a team that has done whatever the opposite of placing a premium on shooting. Only eight players on the Wolves have shot above league average from 3 this year. That shrinks to six if you remove the two two-way contracts (again, shout out to Garza and Matt Ryan). That number also includes Russell, who is now a member of the Play-In rival Los Angeles Lakers. Once you get right down to it, the Wolves’ three highest 3-point attempters, Edwards, Conley, and Prince, combine to average only around six makes a game. This team has set itself up for failure outside the arc.
The question is, how does President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly fix this?
The answer is unfortunately extremely difficult. There are certain options in free agency, and while the cap strapped Wolves have both the full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, it’s questionable if they are willing to use both.
Unfortunately for Prince, the answer may come in a trade. Prince sports one of the few tradable contracts this offseason, an expiring one-year, $8 million flyer, useful for both a contender and a team hoping to open cap space. Can the Wolves pry away rookie contract shooter Chris Duarte from an Indiana Pacers team that was shopping him at the deadline? How would the Nets feel about a Prince homecoming for some member of their seemingly unending crowd of wings? Does a Malik Beasley return make any sense to a front office that has traded him twice?
Prince is the best shooter on this team outside of Towns. That remains a problem for the future of the Wolves’ wing rotation. However, while Prince has shown he’s not the answer, he certainly isn’t a bad piece to have around and I, for one, hope that he can finally return to his smorgasbord of skills instead of being pigeon holed as a shooter. But, for the rest of the season, the Wolves must find a way to either energize Prince or hit a hot streak, or the season will end quickly and quietly.