76ers

NBA draft: Taurean Prince's journey from homeless to 1st-round prospect

NBA draft: Taurean Prince's journey from homeless to 1st-round prospect

The Salvation Army provided shelter for the 12-year-old boy and his father. The almost barren room offered two beds and a pair of lamps. There was a communal bathroom down the hall, shared with over 15 people. As for the food, he'd pick at his mundane meal and drink water to curb his hunger.
 
The doors closed at 10 p.m. On the nights the boy would return late from playing with his friends, his father would step out to wait for him. Sometimes the staff let them back in. On other occasions, they could not re-enter and had to find someone to stay with for the evening. Then there were nights they couldn’t secure anywhere to go.
 
The father and son slept outside, sitting up with their backs against the wall.
 
For months, this was the life of Taurean Prince. It was less than 10 years ago. Now, the 6-foot-8, 21-year-old small forward is pondering where he will land in the NBA, and he'll find out Thursday night during the draft.
 
Sticking with Dad
Prince’s parents divorced when he was young. For the early parts of his childhood, he lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment with his mother and younger sister in San Antonio. Tamiyko Prince worked as an aging and disability officer, but the money was tight for a single parent with two young children.
 
Prince grew up fast. He didn’t receive all the new toys his friends did. There were no family vacations. Most of the time he and his younger sister, Catina, played inside. Prince thought with an adult perspective early on and even learned how to drive by the time he was 12.
 
“We had to sacrifice more than the average child would,” Prince told CSNPhilly.com two weeks after his workout with the Sixers, who hold the first, 24th and 26th picks. “Sometimes you’d have to cut up a potato and make fries out of that and just eat a plateful of fries just to get a meal. It was making ends meet any way possible.”
 
By the time Prince was approaching middle school, his father, Anthony, was getting things back on track. He had been in and out of jail. During middle school, Prince moved from his mother’s in San Antonio to live with his dad in San Angelo, Texas.
 
They stayed with his paternal grandmother, a strong family figure who kept the household in order. That stable home, though, was rocked when she succumbed to breast cancer.
 
“My father was kind of lost in what to do, just like how anybody would be when they lost their mother,” Prince said. “We went to go live with my aunt. She had to move and we moved in with one of my dad’s girlfriends. They got into an argument and we had to move out of that situation. But we had nowhere to go, so we just resorted to the Salvation Army.”
 
Once again, Prince packed his bags. He had been accustomed to bouncing from home to home, but nothing could prepare him for this magnitude of change. While he processed his new environment, he was comforted by believing in his father’s decisions.
 
“[I felt] kind of lost, not knowing exactly why I was there,” Prince said of his first night. “But I just trusted everything my dad said. I never really questioned what he did because I knew everything was for a reason.”
 
Prince didn’t know how long he would be without a consistent place to live. What he was sure of was that he was going to stick by his father regardless of where they were staying. Prince was so committed to his father that he did not reveal to his mother they were homeless. He feared she would remove him from the situation, and he couldn’t imagine leaving his father by himself.
 
“I never told my mom, not once,” he said. “I knew she would have tried to take me away from my dad and I didn’t want to leave my dad alone. I didn’t want him to be lonely, so I stuck by his side.”
 
Another new home
When Prince was entering the eighth grade, though, he could not stop their separation. His father was caught writing bad checks. Before Anthony turned himself in, he asked the mother of Prince’s close friend, Bowdy Thompson, if Prince could stay with them. Candina Kent (then Thompson) was a single mother of three herself, but she had an extra bedroom and was willing to take in Prince.
 
The Thompsons knew by living with them, Prince would be able to stay at the same middle school. They had no idea they were also providing him with a home. Prince never advertised his hardships. He did not reveal to his friends and classmates he had been staying at the Salvation Army. Even when he moved in with the Thompsons, he did not speak of the things he lacked. He simply gratefully accepted what he was given.
 
“I didn’t know that him and his dad were kind of homeless,” Bowdy Thompson said. “He always portrayed himself as someone who had what he needed. … Finding that out broke my heart as his friend.”
 
Over 10 years later, Prince’s voice rises with happiness when recalling living with the Thompson family. The assurance of having a bed to sleep in felt like a luxury to him.
 
“It was definitely one of the best feelings ever,” Prince said. “I still thank them to this day that they did that for me.”
 
Back to Mom
Prince returned to San Antonio to live with his mother and start high school. Two years later, his mother became pregnant with her long-term boyfriend, but tragedy struck when her boyfriend was shot and killed. Another loss, another life change for Prince.
 
Prince’s father moved in to help his mother during the remainder of her pregnancy and after the birth. Once he moved out, Prince assumed the role of man of the house to help raise his baby brother Derrick. He was 16, juggling the roles of student, athlete and dad.
 
“Those years growing up in high school were just as hard as that time with my father just because you always need a father figure around, period,” Prince said. “But instead of me having one present at all times, I had to be one to my little brother and little sister in a way.”
 
Life as a teenager became about family and basketball. He stayed home to care for his siblings instead of going out with his friends. Prince understood his play on the court could have far-reaching effects to better the lives of those he loves.
 
High school
Prince didn’t play high school basketball at Earl Warren until his sophomore year. Around that time, San Antonio Legends coach John Collins noticed him playing for another AAU team. Prince had sprouted up from 5-foot-9 to 6-6 and was being utilized as a five. Collins, though, saw potential in him as a perimeter player. Prince joined the Legends, where he made his objectives clear to his new coach. 
 
“His concern was helping his mom out by getting a scholarship,” Collins said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just put in the work and I’m going to help you with the rest.’”
 
Collins sensed he had found a diamond in the rough. He picked up Prince and drove him to the gym to get up extra shots. They worked on expanding his game away from the basket and developing a versatile skillset. Focused on playing in college, Prince averaged 21.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.5 blocks as a high school senior.
 
Prince kept looking ahead while keeping his past to himself. Just as he had done with the Thompsons, he did not share his personal struggles with Collins.
 
Looking back, Collins recognizes how Prince was able to see the bigger picture given Prince’s challenges. Collins recalled a game in which Prince did not play up to his potential in front of Duke recruits. He vocalized his frustrations to the high schooler, who calmly replied with a response Collins remembers years later.
 
“I’m telling myself, ‘This doesn’t even faze him,’” Collins said. “All of sudden he comes out and says, ‘You yelling at me, I understand. But I’ve been through worse.' … I never knew anything about that until he graduated from high school. He’s the most tough-minded individual I’ve ever met.”
 
College
Prince signed with LIU to play college ball and transferred to Baylor after the LIU coach left for Duquesne. Prince calls it “the best decision of my life thus far” and played four years for the Bears.
 
During that time he became close friends with Isaiah Austin, a projected lottery pick who had to end his basketball career when he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome during the draft process. Prince changed his number to 21 to honor Austin, and learned a valuable lesson from his teammate.
 
“I’m very confident, don’t get me wrong," Prince said, "but at the same time I know it could all be stripped away any second.”
 
Prince steadily improved in college. He continued to work out with Collins and also trained at the Mo Williams Academy. Prince was a bench player his first three seasons, earning national Sixth Man of the Year honors as a junior. 
 
By his senior season, he became a starter and averaged 15.9 points (43.2 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from three), 6.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
 
"One of the hardest things for bigs who have played inside most of their lives to adjust and become perimeter players. He's put in the time and effort," Baylor head coach Scott Drew said. "He's a fighter and you don't have to worry about him competing."
 
Prince took on the mentality that “scoring wasn’t the only way to get the job done,” and focused on improving his ball handling and decision making. This past season, the Bears went 22-12 and earned the fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament but were knocked off in the first round by 12th-ranked Yale.
 
"He was a late bloomer that just continues to get better," Drew said. "Sometimes when you graduate from college, you've been the same player for two or three years and you've maxed out as a great college player but you don't have a lot of upside. Then there's someone like Taurean who's best basketball will be three, four, five years down the road."
 
When his college career came to a close, he ramped up his focus on the NBA. He earned his degree and left school eager to play in the pros. Once an unranked player in high school, Prince is a projected first-round pick and has moved up some draft boards into the high teens. He likens himself to DeMarre Carroll and Jae Crowder, a versatile wing player who attacks on both ends of the court.
 
“[I am going to be] extremely tough physically and mentally,” he said. “[I'm] always working hard, not satisfied, humble and respectful off the court.”
 
Prince leans on his family during the draft process. His father is helping him on the business side, and he makes sure to text his mother every day. He has strived to reach his goal of helping his relatives, which Collins describes as the driving force of Prince’s success.
 
After years of hardship, Prince is only a few days away from achieving his NBA aspirations. He expects to be hit by a flood of emotions when he hears his named called Thursday. Prince had kept his struggles to himself for years and now is ready to share his talents with an NBA team.
 
“I know I’m going to cry,” Prince said. “Everything that I’ve been through is probably going to flash in my head a thousand seconds fast. It’s going to be something else to add to my story.”

Alec Burks stands out to Brett Brown in Sixers' bench competition with performance vs. Nets

Alec Burks stands out to Brett Brown in Sixers' bench competition with performance vs. Nets

The 12-44 Golden State Warriors have not been the most compelling viewing this season for an East Coast audience. 

Alec Burks, after scoring 19 points Thursday night in the Sixers’ 112-104 overtime win over the Nets, seemed to acknowledge that reality. 

“Just playing my game, man,” he said. “I know I played on the West Coast. I don’t know if y’all watch the West Coast, but that’s how I play. It’s just playing my game, just trying to feel it out, because it’s only my second game — I’ve only been here a couple days. Hopefully it will get better and better as the season goes on.”

Before the Sixers acquired him and Glenn Robinson III from Golden State, Burks had been averaging a career-best 15.8 points per game. His offensive contributions were timely against Brooklyn as he scored every one of his points after the Nets took a 50-30 lead. 

Brett Brown had said pregame that he wants to have a nine-man playoff rotation but that he doesn’t yet know every one of its members. 

“I think there’s a period of time, especially when you’re talking about the last two, say, spots, where it has to be competitive, and it will be,” he said.

After a bizarre game in which the Nets had a 46-10 run and the Sixers made a season-low 4 three-pointers on 22 attempts while shooting 32 of 35 at the foul line, it would have been fair for Brown to say he couldn’t pass much judgement on that competition. Instead, he identified Burks as a standout, especially in the context of the Sixers’ playing without Ben Simmons (lower back tightness) and searching for solutions at backup point guard.

We’d all have to walk out of here being pretty impressed with Alec Burks,” he said. “He provided a scoring punch. He really was a dynamic scorer. And I think the more I’m seeing him, his ability to pass out of a pick-and-roll is elite. … We’re always wondering what’s going to go on with the backup point guard when [Simmons] is healthy, and I tried [Furkan Korkmaz] a little bit there, I tried [Josh Richardson] a little bit there, Shake [Milton] came out of left field in the second half because I wasn’t entirely thrilled with how I was rotating the group and what I was seeing. 

“And so you’re wondering, might Alec have something to do with being a primary ball carrier, because he’s a really good pick-and-roll player and passer? He stood out tonight. The other guys I thought were solid, but as far as standing out, he did to me.

With the Warriors, Burks was above league average efficiency on pick-and-rolls, isolations and dribble handoffs this season, per NBA.com/Stats. He was well suited for ball handling responsibilities with the Sixers on paper, and Thursday was the first extended look at those skills on the court. Burks had sat out the Sixers’ Feb. 9 game vs. the Bulls as he adjusted to a new time zone, city and team, and he’d only played 14 minutes against the Clippers in the Sixers’ final pre-All-Star break game, scoring two points.

Brown tossed out a bunch of lineup combinations, looking for a group that could bring order to a chaotic game. Though Burks air balled an open three with 1:07 left that would have given the Sixers the lead, he was a clear inclusion for Brown in overtime. He scored five of the Sixers’ nine points in the extra session. 

“He was big for us,” Tobias Harris said. “He gives us another guy that can handle the ball and create his own shot. He has a really good mid-range jumper, he’s got great speed going downhill. He was able to make some huge plays for us, especially in the fourth quarter. We just fed off his energy tonight, and it was good to see him get going. … I think he’s going to be great for us.”

Outside of Burks, it likely wouldn’t make sense to take much away from the play of the Sixers’ bench players. Simmons was out, Raul Neto started and Brown was constantly grasping for someone or something that could have a positive impact.

Burks emerged. 

“Since we got him, I felt like that was another guy that could create his own shot — just come off the screen and pull up behind the three-point line,” Joel Embiid said after his 39-point, 16-rebound night. “And he’s not afraid to take that shot. We need that. We haven’t really had that the last couple years, so it’s a good sight to see. A great job by [general manager Elton Brand] for making it happen.”

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A year after post-All-Star injury problem, Joel Embiid is (mostly) healthy, focused on big goals

A year after post-All-Star injury problem, Joel Embiid is (mostly) healthy, focused on big goals

Last season, Joel Embiid returned from the All-Star Game unhealthy, bothered by a left knee injury that would sideline him for eight straight games and jeopardize his status throughout the playoffs.

Thursday night, he saved the Sixers from what would have been a bad defeat to the Brooklyn Nets, scoring a season-high 39 points and snatching 16 rebounds in a 112-104 overtime win at Wells Fargo Center (see observations). 

He did, however, have a cold. (His postgame coughing had given a reporter a clue.)

Embiid didn’t have a splint on his left hand, though, which he thought “helped a lot” in converting 18 of 19 free throws, including four in the final 35.9 seconds of regulation. In the previous eight games, he’d shot 69.9 percent at the foul line. He dove on the floor, sprinted down it and looked like a player invigorated by the prospect of the home stretch. 

“Like I’ve been saying, I’m getting back to myself,” he said. “I’m telling my teammates, ‘Just get me the ball.’ … But that’s the mindset I’ve got to have. I want my teammates to know that I’m going to be there, especially in those type of situations.”

To call Thursday’s contest the ultimate game of runs would not be hyperbole. The Sixers claimed an early 20-4 lead, followed by a 46-10 stretch by Brooklyn. Because of a 12-2 spurt to finish the first half, the Sixers stayed in the game. It was a weird, unpredictable game ultimately decided by one dominant player.

“The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world,” Embiid said. "I just intend to keep coming out every single night, just play hard and try to get wins. Go hard and try to win a championship.”

Though there were areas to nitpick — five turnovers, for instance — Embiid generally did and said all the right things.

He even spun a question about the team’s free throw shooting into an opportunity to praise fellow All-Star Ben Simmons, who missed the game with lower back soreness. Simmons had made 69.6 percent of his free throws on seven attempts per game in the 16 games before the All-Star break, and Embiid saw an opening to recognize that recent improvement. 

“The thing I’m so happy about is Ben,” he said. “He’s been shooting the lights out at the free throw line. It shows his work ethic. He’s been working really hard, and it’s showing. He’s gotta keep doing that — keep working and keep improving — and I think that’s a big part of it.”

Embiid has often raised the issue of his personal disposition this year, commenting at length on topics like maturity, authenticity and his desire to have fun.

He was certainly not in a brooding mood late Thursday night. 

Having fun means a lot of things,” he said. “This year I have not been smiling as much as previous years. That doesn’t mean that I’m not having fun or anything is not going well. It’s just about just playing basketball the right way. First part of the season I was trying to make sure I was comfortable, kind of took a step back. But if we’re going to go somewhere, I’ve gotta be one of the guys. And it starts on defense — just playing hard, running the floor, doing the little things.

That apparent level of clarity and, more importantly, the level of Embiid’s play vs. Brooklyn, are obvious positives. 

Still, he’s started three straight All-Star Games. It’s been clear for a while that he’s one of the top players in the sport. One excellent, healthy game is worth acknowledging, without a doubt. But, if things go according to Embiid and the Sixers’ plan, it shouldn’t be the sort of thing that merits much consideration when one looks back at the season. 

“I expect greatness from him,” Tobias Harris said. “I think we all do as a team.”

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