The talent in that locker room is off the charts. Now it’s a matter of putting it together, and putting it in team form, not just like we’re going out and playing pick-up ball.” – Tayshaun Prince, Timberwolves Media Day
In the coming weeks, months, and perhaps years (should his knees and back hold up), expect a deluge of articles about Kevin Garnett’s mentorship of the young Timberwolves. He is, after all, the perfect subject: loquacious, demanding, unfiltered, with a ring and a league MVP trophy to his credit, who (at least publicly) relishes his role as a coach on the floor and the biggest personality in the locker room, a terrific person and player for Karl-Anthony Towns to be around.
Look for a few on Andre Miller, too, “The Professor,” a man who looks and sometimes moves like your uncle, but has nevertheless built a 17-year NBA career out out of intelligence, guile, and hard work. He arrived in the Twin Cities area three weeks prior to the start of training camp, and figures to work closely with Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones throughout the season. Many who cover the league regard him as a sage, the wise old man ready to school players half his age by sheer cunning.
Tayshaun Prince’s potential for mentoring young players is often mentioned only as a member of “the group” of older guys; he’s lumped in with KG and Dre, but rarely mentioned in his own right. That seems odd; Prince’s individual story, and the knowledge he brings from his years of experience with Kentucky, and especially Detroit, make him the perfect candidate to guide Minnesota’s exciting prospects.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m old, now,” said Prince on media day, his voice soft and measured, “but (as a young player) I had the opportunity to be around Cliff Robinson… Danny Manning… Jon Barry… Corliss Williamson… Michael Curry… great veterans, great locker room guys that knew what it took.”
“Hopefully,” he continued, “I can relay some of that stuff to these young guys.”
It’s easy to forget just how great a collegiate player Tayshaun Prince was. He arrived at Kentucky from Dominguez high school in Compton, California, where he was the 12th-ranked recruit in the country his senior year. His freshman season in Lexington, he played big minutes as the sixth man for a team that made it to the Elite Eight. While Kentucky’s postseason fortunes never matched their lofty standards during the rest of Prince’s time there, it wasn’t for lack of effort on his part. Under the tutelage of Tubby Smith, he became an outstanding perimeter defender and scorer, earning SEC Player of the Year honors in 2001 and was a second team All-American that same season. Over his final two seasons as a Wildcat, Prince averaged 17 points and 6 rebounds while hoisting nearly six threes per game.
Despite his accolades, pro scouts looked at his thin frame and advanced age (for a prospect, anyway – he was one of the oldest players taken in the 2002 Draft) and failed to see much upside. Prince slid all the way to the 23rd spot, where the Detroit Pistons snatched him up. His rookie season in Detroit, he logged 40 regular season DNP’s and just 400 minutes; but when the playoffs rolled around, coach Rick Carlisle began to lean on him. Only Ben Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Cliff Robinson and Chauncey Billups logged more postseason minutes than Prince, who cemented his place as member of Detroit’s core going forward.
Over the next five seasons, Prince appeared in each of the Pistons’ 509 regular and postseason games, tallying more than 18,000 total minutes along the way (not to mention his Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Games). He averaged 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists per game on 49.6 eFG% and was named Second Team All-Defense four consecutive times (2005-08). The Pistons reached the Conference Finals each of those five seasons, winning the Eastern crown twice and upsetting the heavily favored Lakers in 2004 to secure their franchise’s third title.
Two games into the following campaign, the Pistons dealt Chauncey Billups to the Nuggets for Allen Iverson, and their run of dominance pretty much died with that transaction. Prince logged more than 3,000 minutes for a 39-win Pistons team that was swept out of the first round in 2009, then began breaking down a bit throughout the three lottery-bound seasons that followed. He finally escaped Detroit’s misery in January, 2013, when he was dealt to the Grizzlies. He was part of the tough Memphis teams that made it to the Conference Finals (in 2013) and pushed the Thunder to seven games (in 2014). Last season, he bounced around again, first to Boston for a quick nine game stint, then back to Detroit, where it all began for him.
Prince decided that wasn’t the end for him, though; he had various offers once free agency hit, but came to the Wolves on a veteran’s minimum deal. Prince could’ve glommed onto a winner, but chose to reunite with Flip Saunders in Minnesota and help mold a talented young roster instead.
A common thread runs through Prince’s career, and the cursory overview above doesn’t really do it justice. But there’s a reason Tayshaun is here, and a reason he’s earned the respect of so many people throughout his time in the NBA, and a reason to be optimistic about the effect he can have on the Wolves’ young core: he knows what it takes. We know he knows because of the way he’s played, and how his teams have performed.
He isn’t the larger-than-life personality KG is, or the mad scientist Andre Miller seems to be. He’s soft-spoken, but confident, much like Andrew Wiggins. He’s been a terrific wing defender in the NBA, something Shabazz Muhammad says he hopes to become. He’s sacrificed his own offensive numbers for the good of his teams, willingly taking a back seat to Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton, and later Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, preferring to fill in the gaps by moving the ball and playing good defense.
So while Kevin Garnett can speak to Towns and Wiggins about expectations, and curse the best out of them in practice and shootarounds, and Andre Miller can wax philosophical with Ricky Rubio and Tyus Jones about the nature of the point guard position, Tayshaun Prince can show young players all the little ways to contribute to success. About how sacrifice and attention to detail can be the difference between coming together and falling apart.
“When you have a young group of guys like this, the most important thing is building chemistry, building camaraderie, and how to practice and get ready for games,” Prince said on Media Day. “It’s important to let these guys know how to get prepared… it’s more more important now than ever to focus on the task at hand, whether it’s a game or a practice.”
Mentorship can only do so much – young players need to drive themselves from within as well – but with people like Tayshaun Prince around, it’s tough not to like the Wolves’ chances for getting the Wolves’ young core on the right track. There’s a good chance we’re listening to Karl-Anthony Towns on Media Day ten years from now, letting us know just how important a guy like Tayshaun was to his rookie season, about how he helped the young Timberwolves put it all into team form.