DETROIT PISTONS small forward Tayshaun Prince has learned the fine art of blocking a shot without grazing his victim. His masterpiece was a play in Game 2 of last year's Eastern Conference finals when he snuck up behind Reggie Miller on a breakaway, soared over Miller's shoulder and swatted the layup attempt with the precision of an artist's brushstroke.
While that play helped propel the Pistons to the title, don't be surprised if Prince makes the same move against San Antonio in the Finals only to have the officials whistle a goaltending or foul call. It's a common mistake: He's so stealthy that even the refs are unprepared for his arrival. "I'll let him get a good lead so I can time my jump," says Prince of his prey. "Sometimes I make a little contact at the waist or below, but I'll never get him with the upper body."
Detroit hopes that Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen and the rest of the Spurs will come to appreciate why Prince made the NBA's all-defensive second team: At a willowy 6'9" and 215 pounds, he's quick enough to squelch drives and tall enough to challenge jump shots. "His wingspan is so long, when he stretches out it's like an umbrella opening up," says Pistons reserve forward Antonio McDyess. Offensively, Prince can show just as much versatility. "He's a mismatch for most people because he's good with the ball in his hands--off the dribble or in the post--he passes well, and he's so poised and easygoing," says point guard Chauncey Billups. "He's always thinking stuff through before it happens, and that's something you don't see in young players."
This season, Prince improved in every offensive category, shooting 48.7% and averaging 14.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 37.1 minutes. But he remains almost mute about his accomplishments. "If you don't force-feed him, he's not going to say anything," says Billups. "That's his personality--he knows he has an advantage [over his opponent] most nights, but he never looks to be bigger than the team."
Prince attributes his maturity to his unconventional (at least by modern standards) preparation for the NBA: a four-year college career, at Kentucky, where he graduated with a sociology degree before the Pistons picked him 23rd in the 2002 draft. His postseason exploits have defined him as a big-game player since his rookie year, when he played in only 42 regular-season games but exploded in the playoffs with a 20-point performance. He has gone from guarding Kobe Bryant in last year's Finals to defending Dwyane Wade in last week's Eastern Conference finals; he had 13 points and eight rebounds on Monday night to help Detroit beat Miami 88--82 in Game 7.
It's easy to misjudge Prince. He's far stronger than he looks, according to Billups, who lifts weights with him during the summer, and far more outgoing with friends than he is on the public stage. At 25 he provides an unusual blend of maturity and youthful athleticism for a team defending its championship. "Before a big game, the most important thing is you've got to be relaxed," says Prince. "Once you get in a comfort zone, that's when you start to be better as a player." --Ian Thomsen