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NBA FINALS | LAKERS VS. DETROIT

Pistons Knew Their Prince Would Come

They stuck with lanky forward rather than taking Anthony with the No. 2 pick and he has made big plays in the playoffs.

June 05, 2004|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Don't fault Tayshaun Prince because he's not Carmelo Anthony. Prince is not to blame because the Detroit Pistons believed so strongly in him that they passed on Anthony in the NBA draft last June.

Not entirely, at least.

But as a rookie in the playoffs last year, Prince showed such promise that the Pistons decided they didn't need another small forward, even one as ready-made for stardom as Anthony, who had just led Syracuse to the NCAA title.

The long-limbed Prince, they believed, was no pauper.

So as the draft approached, with the Pistons holding the No. 2 pick and weighing their options, Prince got a call from club President Joe Dumars, who told the appreciative Prince that the Pistons would not be taking Anthony.

Dumars' message to Prince was clear: We believe in you.

Of course, it also meant that Prince, who as a rookie was a regular-season afterthought before blossoming in the playoffs, would be expected to perform at a high level for a team with NBA championship aspirations.

And though his Olive Oyl physique and languid demeanor might have suggested otherwise, the 6-foot-9, 215-pound Prince never backed down.

Still, with Anthony leading the Denver Nuggets into the playoffs and challenging LeBron James for rookie-of-the-year honors, Prince was never able to quell criticism of the Pistons' decision to draft Darko Milicic, the seven-foot, teenaged Serb, who rarely left the bench.

How could he? The expectations were through the roof.

On the other hand, the former Kentucky and Compton Dominguez High standout has been a starter in all but two of the Pistons' 100 games this season. And he did help them reach the NBA Finals, where he could play a vital role against the Lakers, probably drawing the defensive assignment on Kobe Bryant.

"I don't worry about all that," Prince says of the questions that surrounded Dumars' decision. "I've got a GM in there who drafted me and put me in this situation, knowing I was going to play, and I had to take advantage of it.

"If he and my coaching staff have confidence in me, everything else is irrelevant."

Dumars, meanwhile, remains true to his convictions.

"Tayshaun is an incredibly versatile player and has the ability to make big plays for us on both ends of the floor," says Dumars, who took Prince with the 23rd pick in the 2002 draft. "And when you're aspiring to do what we're trying to do, those are the kinds of players that can help you win a championship."

He also calls Prince "the smartest player on our team."

In Dumars' judgment, Prince made the three biggest plays in the Pistons' run to the Eastern Conference title, their first since 1990.

Foremost was his out-of-nowhere block on a Reggie Miller layup late in Game 2 of the East finals, derailing an Indiana Pacer comeback and saving the Pistons from an 0-2 series deficit.

In the Game 6 clincher, Prince made a key block on Al Harrington late in the game and sealed the victory with a three-point basket in the final minute.

"Everybody asks me, 'When he's not scoring, why do you play him?' " Coach Larry Brown says of Prince, who averaged 17.4 points on 59% shooting in the opening round against the Milwaukee Bucks but has since averaged seven points on 32% shooting. "Well, there are a lot of things that the kid does. His length [is an asset]. He's an extra ballhandler. He stretches the defense a little bit.

"And he makes big plays."

Brown, though, remains one of Prince's harshest critics, urging him to be more assertive and aggressive, especially on offense.

"He's so even-keeled," teammate Chauncey Billups told a reporter last month, "he's under the keel."

Brown pushes him, he says, because he believes in him.

"He needs to get stronger," Brown says of Prince, who is rail thin, all arms and legs, a long head on top, usually hung to one side. "And he needs more experience, and that'll come. But he's improved in every area -- defensively, offensively, rebounding the ball, sharing the ball. And he's still young."

Prince, who is 24 and graduated from Kentucky with a degree in sociology, says that in many ways he still feels like a rookie. He played in only 42 of 82 games last season, averaging about 10 minutes and 3.3 points.

But in the playoffs he averaged more than 25 minutes and nearly 10 points. The Pistons reached the conference finals. Expectations skyrocketed.

"I don't think they were unrealistic," he says. "But, at the same time, for the most part what people expect of you is going to be very demanding. I think the toughest part for me has been handling the first season. And that's how I look at it, because I'm a second-year player but really I'm a first-year player."

And like most rookies, he was inconsistent. He averaged 10.3 points and 4.8 rebounds over about 33 minutes a game. He made 46.7% of his shots. He avoided injury, belying his frail appearance, and he often drew difficult defensive assignments, most recently Ron Artest and Richard Jefferson in the playoffs.

Bryant is next.

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