The Timberwolves Are Paupers Without Prince

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Edwards experienced a significant learning moment on Jan. 9, 2021. The San Antonio Spurs led the Minnesota Timberwolves 125-122 with ten seconds remaining in overtime when Karl-Anthony Towns inbounded the ball to Ricky Rubio. The Spanish guard brought the ball up near halfcourt, found Edwards in the corner and threw him a pass. Edwards corralled it, blew past DeMar DeRozan, and drove to the basket.

Then Edwards suddenly turned around and threw a pass to nowhere. Game over.

Rubio calmly pulled Edwards aside and explained what he did wrong. Edwards respected the veteran point guard, saying that he learned and grew from Rubio every day. He even said he was going to visit Rubio in Spain. My lasting image of Rubio from his short-lived second stint in Minnesota is him grabbing Edwards by the elbow and pointing to the basket. It was a fitting image for one player assisting another who experienced a meteoric rise in the second half of the season.

Photo Credit: David Berding (USA TODAY Sports)

Ultimately, Rubio’s second stint didn’t go as planned, and the Wolves traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Taurean Prince in August 2021. Prince isn’t Rubio. He didn’t arrive as a moppet to Beatles-level fanfare. He doesn’t pass the ball like a wizard or tell his teammates to change their faces. But Prince is a natural leader, a calming presence for a franchise that has endured a lot of turbulence.

“Taurean has been awesome,” said Kyle Anderson, another team leader. “He relates to the guys. Everybody can talk to each other without catching feelings, and he’s one of the reasons [for] that. He always makes sure we stay together. He’ll get on you when he has to, and he does a good job keeping everybody together.”

Prince has been in and out of the lineup with injuries and personal matters this season, but the Timberwolves are undeniably better when he suits up. Minnesota is 24-16 with Prince and 10-16 without him.

His value is equal parts obvious and overlooked. Prince is the prototypical 3-and-D player, a long wing who knocks down threes and locks up opposing players. He’s the kind of player that the Wolves should put around Edwards. But Prince also does the small things that make an enormous difference. He’s a veteran leader for Minnesota’s young stars, a complement to Edwards, and a model player for Jaden McDaniels.

He also does the gritty stuff that can change the outcome of a game.

“If we have Taurean in that Golden State game, we don’t lose,” said Anderson, referring to Minnesota’s only loss on their four-game California road trip. “He just does a lot of the little things for us. [Prince is] so tough. He’s physical. He’ll take a charge. Put his body on the line. He’s just such a great presence for us. A lot of energy, and he can shoot the hell out of the ball. We love having Peezy out there. I love playing with him.”

“He’s been a really good leader for us all year,” echoed Chris Finch. “He’s been a great presence even when he hasn’t been on the floor. We have Kyle, and we have Mike [Conley] now. Those guys are very mature and very poised in a lot of ways. TP has always been saying and doing the right things. A little more fiery as a voice, which I like. It gives us a nice change of pace there.”

Prince is a leader on the second unit, and depth has been Minnesota’s strength this year. Edwards is the player who drives winning, and Rudy Gobert and McDaniels anchor the defense. But Towns has been injured since late November, and the Wolves traded D’Angelo Russell at the deadline. With a calf injury sidelining one of their max players indefinitely and another playing in Los Angeles, Minnesota is leaning on guys like Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker.

“Our second unit is starting to take on a personality,” Finch added. “[Prince is] a large part of that. Nickeil’s a part of that, [and] JMac’s starting to play a little bit better. Of course, Naz has been great all year. It’s huge because it gives us another guy who can really defend. We have a lot of guys that take pride in defending out on the floor right now.”

“We know how important we are to the team and how we can help the starters and make their job easier as the nights go on,” Prince acknowledged. “We just try to bring that every game, be as consistent as possible. The best ability is availability, so whether it was injuries or things we can’t control, just always trying to be there.”

It was tough for many fans to see the Timberwolves trade Rubio. He represented hope at a time when the Wolves were in their doldrums. But Prince is the kind of player Minnesota needs to target. They need leaders for their young players, as Rubio was. But, more pertinently, they need to surround Edwards with large players who can defend and hit threes.

Prince doesn’t drive winning in the way Edwards does. But he’s become the ignition for a team that’s long had trouble turning the engine over.

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