By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
When pro team after pro team in any sport pass on drafting someone who eventually has long and successful career, I wonder about those in the front office that chose unwisely.
For example, there were the 18 teams picking the first 22 players in the 2002 NBA draft.
Here we are, 10½ seasons later, 15 of those draft choices either are retired, not playing in the NBA or never played in the league.
Of the six players of the first 22 taken in the ’02 draft still in the NBA, only one (Caron Butler) has played and started on an NBA championship team.
Now let’s talk about the 23rd player taken in the ‘ 02 NBA draft, former Kentucky forward Tayshaun Prince who was selected by the Detroit Pistons.
He became a starter his second year in the league when won a NBA championship ring, and almost won a second the next season one before losing in game seven of the finals to the San Antonio Spurs.
He was named four times to the NBA’s All-Defensive second team, and was a key reserve on the U.S. 2004 Olympic gold medal winning team.
The amazing thing is he’s accomplished all this and done this well for so long, because of a couple lessons he learned long ago from two of the most influential men in his life.
Lesson No. 1 learned from his dad Thomas: Deliver an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
“My Dad, who’s retired now, worked for over 30 years and never missed a day of work,” says Tayshaun, 32, who until he was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies last Wednesday, had started 798 straight games for the Pistons (695 in regular season, 103 in playoffs) when healthy, dating back to 2004-05. “If he woke up tired or sick, he’d still do his job. That’s instilled in me.”
Lesson No. 2 learned from his college coach Tubby Smith: Know when and where to shoot.
“I take pride in doing what I do and doing it to the best of my ability,” Tayshaun says. “I take shots when they are there, and if not I make good reads and make plays for other players. Tubby was a coach that when you ran his offense, you better get a good shot or you’re coming out of the game.”
It’s such self-awareness that has made Tayshaun ridiculously consistent. His career averages are 13.1 points for college, 12.8 for the NBA. His career field goal shooting percentage in college was 45.7 percent compared to 45.9 in the NBA.
That’s why it was no surprise last Friday when Tayshaun, playing for the first time in the pros not wearing a No. 22 Pistons jersey, scored 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting to lead the playoff-contending Grizzlies to a nine-point win over the Wizards.
Going back to the No. 21 jersey he wore when he played for Kentucky from 1998-2002, he effortlessly transitioned despite meeting his new teammates just a few hours before tipoff and learning just a few of the offensive plays.
“Tayshaun is just one of those guys who knows how to play the game,” says Grizzlies’ point guard Mike Conley, who at age 25, is seven years younger than Tayshaun and was barely in high school when Tayshaun started his NBA career. “He knows how to play defense, he recognizes time on the shot clock, he knows when and when not to shoot. He gives you what you need when you need it.”
Tayshaun’s game has remained steady ever since his prep days at Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif. His rise as a blue-chipper coincided with one of the hottest eras in UK basketball, when the Wildcats won national titles in 1996 and 1998, and lost in the championship game in 1997.
Naturally, Tayshaun, who averaged 20.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists as a consensus national top 10 player his senior season in ’98, wanted to play for the hottest program in the nation.
And he wanted to play so bad for UK that every available night of his senior year, he attended a four-hour
Scholastic Aptitude Test study class so he could obtain the necessary test score.
"The kid persevered," Russell Otis, Prince’s high school coach told Cincinnati Post reporter Janet Graham in April 1998 when Tayshaun passed the test. "He wouldn't give in to the test. He just kept studying until he got it done.”
When Tayshaun reported to Kentucky, Wildcat fans were excited but also a bit skeptical once they saw his rail thin 6-8, 185-pound physique and less than picture perfect shooting form.
Tayshaun got less playing time than other UK freshmen, finishing his first season averaging 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds. But his consistent postseason performances raised hope he’d reach his potential by the time he left Kentucky.
The next three seasons, he became one of the most versatile and decorated players in SEC history, a three-time All-SEC selection (twice first team), and league MVP as a junior in 2000-01 when he also was named MVP of the conference tournament.
As Tayshaun grew an inch to 6-9 and put on 30 pounds, he became difficult to defend as UK coach Tubby Smith moved him from small forward to power forward early in his junior season. He had the shooting stroke and handle of a guard, yet could post players because he had a 7 foot 2 inch reach.
"He's a nightmare matchup,” then-Georgia coach Jim Harrick said of Tayshaun. “His jump hook is unstoppable."
Because of Tayshaun’s ability to score inside, he’d often have the smarts to post when he realized outside shooting touch was cold. An example of that was in Kentucky’s 2001 SEC tourney semifinal when he went for 19 points and 11 rebounds, taking Joe Johnson, Arkansas’ future NBA star, to school in the paint.
“I thought we did a good job on him," then-Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson said, “but a player that good is going to get some points. That hook shot he shoots in which he keeps his body between the ball and the defender is very good.”
But when Tayshaun had every facet of his game clicking, there was nothing any defender could do, like when he hit five straight three pointers, scoring Kentucky’s first 15 points in a 79-59 victory over North Carolina early in his senior season.
Or in the second-to-his last game of his 135-game UK career when scored a career-high 41 points in Kentucky’s 87-82 victory over Tulsa in a NCAA tournament East Regional second round game.
He swished 14-of-21 field goals (including 6-of-8 threes), grabbing 9 rebounds and not committing a single turnover in 37 minutes of play. His point total tied the UK NCAA tourney record set by Jack “Goose” Givens in the Wildcats’ 94-88 win over Duke in the 1978 national championship game.
Tayshaun was so dominating that the Kentucky bench kept screaming, “Give Tayshaun the ball” every time the Wildcats were on offense.
"It got to the point where I was just shaking my head," Tulsa guard Greg Harrington said afterward of Tayshaun’s show. "We tried to find a way to stop him, but nothing worked."
Though Tayshaun filled stat lines all the way across box scores almost every college game, and though he received the endorsement of Smith who described Tayshaun as “a cool, cool guy who doesn’t get rattled when the game is on the line,” pro scouts remained skeptical.
Rather than consider his skill set, they looked at Tayshaun’s body, his concave chest and skinny biceps. Finally, the Pistons grabbed him with the 23rd pick, and by the end of his rookie season they knew they’d gotten a steal.
Though he appeared in just 42 regular season games, he was inserted into the starting lineup in the first round of the playoffs when Detroit trailed Orlando, 3 games to 1.
The Pistons rallied to win the series, Tayshaun scored 20 points in game seven and became the only player in NBA history to score more points in the playoffs than the regular season (137 in the season, 141 in the playoffs).
A year later, he moved to the starting lineup when the Pistons won the 2004 NBA title over the Lakers. Detroit, however, wouldn’t have gotten to the finals without Tayshaun’s legendary block of a Reggie Miller breakaway layup in game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals after Miller’s Indiana Pacers’ had won game 1.
Miller was at the top of the key, steps away from dropping in the game-tying layup, just Tayshaun crossed midcourt.
"I said to myself: 'Reggie better dunk it, because if he doesn't dunk it Tay is going to get it'," said Rip Hamilton, one of Tayshaun’s teammates.
Miller slowed and tried to lay the ball of the backboard. Tayshaun accelerated like a gazelle, leaped and swatted away the shot a nanosecond before it was about to hit the backboard. Tayshaun ended up landing almost in the stands.
“Shoulda dunked it, but I had a few steps on him,” Miller said.
Recalls Tayshaun, “When he slowed up, it gave me time to get there. Once I put my hand on the ball, I knew it was a good block.”
The play became the signature highlight of Tayshaun’s career, one that he spent entirely with the Pistons until he was told was told last week he had been traded to the Grizzlies.
Tayshaun had been the last remaining Piston from the ’04 championship squad. The rest of the players had been traded, signed as free agents by other teams, waived or retired. Three of the players from the ’04 team are pro or college coaches, including former Arkansas star Corliss Williamson who’s head coach at Central Arkansas.
Though the Pistons hadn’t been to the playoffs the last three seasons – “Things started going downhill (in November 2008) when we traded (all-star guard) Chauncey (Billups), it was like cutting the head off the snake,” Tayshaun says – Tayshaun never demanded a trade.
“It was tough for me because of the position I’ve been in before, but it had been a unique position,” Tayshaun said. “When guys first come into the league, a majority of the time it’s on a team that’s average or below average, and that team peaks as their career continues.
“Not many guys are like me who came into a team that was near the top, with me setting a NBA record for most playoff games played in a player’s first six seasons. And then things start going downhill. But in the last month, right before I left (the Pistons), we were playing good basketball.”
Now, though, Tayshaun is in Memphis on a team that is fourth in the Western Conference, gunning for its third straight trip to the playoffs.
“Playing for a possible playoff team really gives you an energy boost, it really gives you the boost to play at a high level,” Tayshaun says. “As me and my new teammates continue to learn each other, it’s going to get better and better. I’m blessed.”
With his move, Tayshaun is certainly happier to be a little closer to Big Blue Country. In 2010, one of the best days of life was when he was inducted into the UK of Hall Fame by Smith, who describes Tayshaun as “one of the classiest people, not just players, but classiest people that I think Kentucky has ever seen.”
Tayshaun is appreciative that current Kentucky coach John Calipari welcomes back former players with open arms, a reason why Tayshaun looks forward to work Calipari’s summer camp.
“It’s great that someone who didn’t have the chance to coach has established a relationship with us,” Tayshaun says. “We get texts from him all season checking on us. It’s a great feeling to stay connected with Kentucky.”