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Heat Gets the Skinny on Prince

The only non-All-Star in Detroit's lineup plays like one

June 02, 2006|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Never mind the Olive Oyl physique.

Tayshaun Prince, the pride of Compton's Dominguez High if not Muscle & Fitness magazine, is one of the NBA's most durable and dependable players.

The spindly, freckle-faced Detroit Pistons forward was the Prince of the Palace on Wednesday night in scoring a playoff career-high 29 points that kept the Pistons alive against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

Prince has not sat out a game because of injury or illness for as far back as he can remember. After his rookie season three years ago, he has played in all 82 regular-season games for three seasons, as well as all of the Pistons' 65 playoff games during that time.

In this year's playoffs, no other Piston has played more minutes than Prince, who spends nearly 42 minutes a game on the floor, averages 16.8 points and often is assigned to guard the other team's best player.

Despite appearances, "He's very strong," said Arnie Kander, the Pistons' longtime strength and conditioning coach. "His core strength is incredible. He's not going to have Ben Wallace biceps, but ... he's mechanically as sound as it gets and he's in incredible shape -- all the little intangibles....

"There's not a lot of waste in what Tayshaun does. You'll never see a lot of excessive movement, and efficiency can be another form of strength. You'll notice with him, usually in the fourth quarter he gets better."

Prince, 26, got better as the season played out too.

The Pistons' other four starters were voted into the All-Star game, but as Coach Flip Saunders noted the other day, "The one guy that didn't make the All-Star team is the one guy that's definitely playing like an All-Star, no question, since the break."

Chauncey Billups, the Pistons' All-Star point guard, called the versatile Prince "probably the most important piece on this entire team."

And reserve guard Lindsey Hunter said: "He's been our MVP just about."

With his extraordinary length and long arms -- he is 6 feet 9, with an arm span of 7-2 -- Prince was LeBron James' primary defender in the conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers and almost never left the floor.

Prince scored 20 points in the Pistons' 79-61 Game 7 victory, in which the Cavaliers shot only 31% and scored only 23 points in the second half.

On Wednesday, Prince made 11 of 17 shots as the Pistons trimmed the Heat's lead in the series to 3-2. Game 6 is tonight in Miami.

Though the Pistons almost never run a play for him, left-handed Prince has improved his playoff scoring average by nearly three points from the regular season while averaging 5.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists, up from his regular-season averages. His shooting percentages have improved too.

"He's such an opportunistic player," said Heat Coach Pat Riley, who labeled Prince "unorthodox" and wasn't the first to compare him to former Lakers forward Jamaal Wilkes, noting the similarities in their seeming effortlessness and the unusual release on their shots. "His driving ability, his offensive rebounding and the fact that he'll make open shots, you've just got to be totally aware of that....

"He's not a good player, he's a great player, and very efficient. Smart as hell, and our players have to look at him in that context."

Looking at Prince didn't always illicit such respect.

He was a star at Kentucky, but many NBA scouts couldn't see past his slight build, his "long arms that seem to sway like a wooden puppet's from his thin, high shoulders," as Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom once noted.

Nearly two dozen teams put him through pre-draft workouts.

Prince arrived in Detroit after a particularly grueling session in Chicago, where the Bulls had him dunk medicine balls one after another until he could do it no more, according to Kander, the Pistons' strength and conditioning coach.

"He came in and he could hardly move," Kander said, recalling Prince's aching back and burning hamstrings. "The very first play, a guy nailed him in the back and he fell to the floor. So your first thought is typical: You look at him and you think, 'Oh, God, this guy's not going to be able to get up.' He went and dominated the workout, with his back sore, dragging a leg, all that.

"Forget all the physical testing that we do. Here's a guy that pushed himself through. He got nailed into the basket on one play, got right up, went out there again, was attacking, was aggressive."

Eighteen teams passed on Prince before the Pistons made him the 23rd pick in the 2002 draft. (Four teams passed twice, among them the Clippers, who took Chris Wilcox with the eighth pick and Melvin Ely with the 12th.)

For the Pistons, so enamored with Prince that they later said they would have traded the pick if he hadn't been available, it was a steal.

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