Thursday, March 14, 2002

Scouts, UK fans will have eyes on Prince




By Gary Estwick gestwick@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tayshaun Prince could be finishing his first season in the NBA. Instead, he is entering his last NCAA Tournament for Kentucky. “Personally, this tournament is very special for me because it's my last chance at winning a national championship with Kentucky,” the senior forward said Sunday on UK's Web site.

        And as the nation watches to see how far Prince can lead Kentucky, NBA scouts will also be watching — and taking notes. In the next few weeks, Prince could lead the Wildcats to the Final Four and improve his draft status.

        Sounds like a busy month. It all starts today for Prince as UK, seeded No. 4 in the East Region, plays 13th-seeded Valparaiso in the opening round in St. Louis. The winner will advance to play the Marquette-Tulsa winner Saturday.

        Coach Tubby Smith said he expects Prince to deliver.

        “Tayshaun is a gamer,” Smith said. “There's no one I'd rather have the ball in the hands of in the country. I think he's as talented and versatile a player as there is in college basketball today.”

        ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said he expects Prince to be a middle-to-late first-round pick in the NBA draft June 26.

        “I think the NBA will still be looking at Tayshaun to see if he can carry a team,” Bilas said. “This is an opportunity with the lights on for him to showcase what he can do. To show that he can be a leader and a go-to player. I think he's shown that.”

        When Prince withdrew from the 2001 draft before the Chicago predraft camp, he became UK's first returning All-American since Kenny Walker in 1985.

        In a mock draft completed by nbadraft.net, Prince's stock dropped from the No. 30 pick on Feb. 28 to No. 35 on March 4. Among those whose draft status improved over the same period was the University of Cincinnati's Steve Logan (No. 36 to No. 30). Logan's Bearcats won the Conference USA Tournament, and Prince and UK lost to South Carolina in the second round of the SEC Tournament.

        After the NCAA Tournament, Prince still will have opportunities impress scouts at predraft camps and individual workouts with teams.

        “Tayshaun is a kid that's got a really good understanding of the game,” Bilas said. “He's not the best athlete on the court. But he does know how to play.

        “He's never going to be a Vince Carter-type athlete, but he can be a long-term NBA player by his understanding of what's going on out there.”

        Prince's combination of height (6 feet 9) and perimeter shooting (.329 on 3-pointers) has made him a mismatch for most collegiate power forwards. He can play all five positions and has a seven-foot wingspan. Prince, who has often been double- and triple-teamed this season, still leads the team in scoring (16.9), rebounding (6.3) and blocks (40). Nbadraft.net compares Prince to Utah Jazz forward Donyell Marshall, only Prince “plays the perimeter better and has more passion.”

        But Prince's senior season hasn't been easy. He hasn't had a teammate who could complement his scoring on a regular basis. Prince's shooting accuracy (.464 vs. .495 last season), 3-point shooting (from .358 last season) and assists are down (1.6 per game vs. 2.9 last season).

        With the added defensive attention, Prince has become a decoy. In the final minutes against Florida on March 2, Prince took attention away from UK guard Gerald Fitch, who made a 3-pointer with 33 seconds remaining to seal a 70-67 win.

        The postseason accolades have come in slower this season for Prince, who did not repeat as SEC player of the year, losing to Alabama's Erwin Dudley.

        “He didn't get a lot of help this year from a scoring standpoint, or taking some of the burden off him from scoring,” Smith said. “If he had, I think he would have been player of the year this year. Not just in the SEC, but in the country. That's why he'll be a high draft pick, as well.”

        There also is an issue of size. Listed at 215 pounds, Prince is a lean player. Smith said the constant pounding Prince received this season took him out of a lot of games.

        “That's what it's designed to do,” Smith said, “limit his touches and his opportunities to shoot.”

        It won't get any easier in the NBA.

        Smith did say Prince has gotten stronger this season. He's also taken more of a leadership role as a team co-captain.

        This season wasn't the first time Prince has been a leader on a basketball team. In high school, he led Dominguez High to a 96-9 record and a California state championship his junior year.

        “That's going to be critical,” Smith said. “He's done it. Not just in college. Being able to do it again or help the other players understand what they have to do in postseason play will be important.”

        Bilas said Prince made the right decision to come back for his senior season.

        “I think it's made it a ton better for him,” Bilas said. “He's been a much better player. He's become the go-to guy at Kentucky without a ton of help.”

       



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