I’m listening to Radiohead and thinking about Tayshaun Prince. A Moon Shaped Pool is Radiohead’s ninth album and it arrived last Sunday, the most Radiohead day of the week possible to release an album. If you want to date their formation back to when all the band’s members started a band called On A Friday while at the Abingdon School in 1985, they’ve been a band for a staggering 32 years. For his part, the 36-year-old Prince has been a professional basketball player for 14 years, a comparably impressive tenure.
Here is the point of connection that leapt out at me: While many players and bands struggle for years to find outward success and then spend the rest of their careers trying to hang on to it, both Radiohead and Prince achieved that kind of success early (breakout single “Creep” for Radiohead, a championship with the Detroit Pistons for Prince) and then spent the rest of their careers not so much not trying to be outwardly successful, but trying to find success on their own terms.
Prince’s numbers don’t leap off the page: He’s never averaged more than 15 points per game (and only once per 36 minutes), never averaged more than 6 rebounds per game (and again only once per 36), never averaged more than 4 assists per game or per 36. He was a net positive in offensive and defensive rating his first six years in the league, but generally more like flat or a net negative since then. Take away that early championship, take away that stunning block on Reggie Miller, and Prince’s career is kind of meh.
Likewise, shear everything from Radiohead’s career prior to Kid A and you have a genuinely tuneful but basically difficult, thorny and not-at-all-mainstream band that should not be selling out arenas. The point here, though, is not to minimize post-2004 Prince or post-2000 Radiohead, but how early success set them both up for dedicating themselves to the work and not the noise of their professions.
All of that was on display for his stint with the Timberwolves this year. Prince played far and away the most minutes of any of the teams cadre of veteran leaders with 1,462 total — nearly doubling Kevin Martin’s 834 and almost tripling Kevin Garnett’s 556. He started more games than Gorgui Dieng, more games than Zach LaVine, and played in one more game than Ricky Rubio, whose 76 games were heralded as a return to good health.
He was less vocal and visible than Garnett as a voice of leadership, but more committed to the cause of nurturing the young talent on the team than either Andre Miller or Martin, who were both bought out in time to join the San Antonio Spurs for the playoffs. Talking with him toward the end of the season, he honestly didn’t seem entirely thrilled with having to do so much hand-holding. “It’s so many things they have to go through,” he said about the team’s younger players, “but we stay on ‘em constantly constantly constantly. We get frustrated at times because we sit here and say, ‘Hey, they should pick this up by now.’”
But he also praised those same players, talking about how LaVine had picked things up following the All-Star break and not just on offense, but in terms of taking up the challenge on defense. More than anything, this season seemed like work for Prince — a mix of successes and challenges and disappointments — but that’s not so different from how the rest of his career has been. Dozens of players are out there chasing that elusive first championship. I doubt he’d pass up the opportunity to win another one, but it seems like he’d be more interested in winning with a great group of guys more than the ring itself.
As of right now, Prince’s contract with the Wolves is up, and there’s no particular reason to believe his particular brand of grit and grind is going to be more appealing to Tom Thibodeau and company than what Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, or another of Thibs’ former players could provide. Thus, it seems more than likely that it was just the one year for Prince here in Minnesota, that he won’t get to see the fruits of his considerably labor with Andrew Wiggins and the other young players ripen. But they can or at least should count themselves lucky to have gotten to work with a player as dedicated to the work as Prince.