Draft Tales: How the Pistons were sold on Tayshaun Prince at 23 in a weak 2002 class

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While the NBA season is in limbo amid the coronavirus pandemic, Pistons.com will periodically look at past draft classes to illustrate the uncertain nature of the draft or to illustrate how even draft classes considered weak – as the 2020 draft is reputed to be – can yield impact players.)

Even in good draft classes, expectations for the 23rd pick are modest. In drafts considered thin, weak at the top or both, you’re lucky if the 23rd pick sees the floor – or sticks in the league long enough to see a second contract.

The 2002 draft was considered both – lacking in star power and in depth. In retrospect … well, it wasn’t a bad take.

Yao Ming wound up going No. 1 over Duke guard Jay Williams, the only two players in the draft considered to have superstar ceilings. But there were grave concerns about both of them.

So much was unknown about Yao other than his incredible size – 7-foot-6 and 300-plus pounds. He was from China, which had never produced an NBA player of any consequence – and, beyond Yao, still hasn’t nearly two decades after he was the driving force in making the NBA an intensely popular pastime in a nation of 1.4 billion.

Foot injuries cut short Yao’s career after eight seasons during which he flashed dominant traits. He still proved the definitively better choice over Williams, whose career ended in a catastrophic motorcycle accident after a thoroughly unimpressive rookie season in Chicago.

Joe Dumars, two years into his run as Pistons president of basketball operations at the time, was just hoping to fortify a team in transition. Later that summer, he would make two franchise-altering decisions – to sign Chauncey Billups as a free agent and to trade leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse, one year ahead of his contract’s expiration, for a young Rip Hamilton.

For that draft, he was just hoping to land someone who could contribute at some point. At 23 in a disparaged draft, he knew it would be a flawed prospect.

In Tayshaun Prince, the flaw was obvious: his physique. No player in America was more visible in that draft than Prince. He’d spent four years in Kentucky’s starting lineup, seeing his scoring average go up each season. He played in 135 college games. But he appeared so gangly and thin, bordering on frail, that there was natural suspicion about his ability to endure the rigors of an NBA season.

Dumars needed to see just how tough Prince was. So he enlisted Scotty Perry, now Knicks general manager but then his chief college scout, to find the roughest, toughest defender in college basketball to challenge Prince when he visited the Pistons for a predraft workout. Perry came up with Randy Holcomb from San Diego State.

“Randy played on the wild side,” Perry told me after Prince had established himself as an NBA starter. “Very strong, very athletic, kind of throws his body all around.”

And that’s what he did during his workout against Prince, just as Dumars hoped.

“A physical small forward,” Dumars recalled of Holcomb. “Strong as a bull. He jammed Tayshaun into the basket one time, just … BAM! And Tayshaun dropped to the floor.”

“They’re matched up in a one-on-one drill,” Perry said. “Tayshaun goes to the rim and Randy just knocked the heck out of him. Knocked him into the basket support. Tayshaun hit it hard and then he hit the floor hard, laid there. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, geez, I sure hope he’s not hurt.’ ”

Prince came to the workout already dealing with back pain. He’d had several workouts earlier in that week and the day before, a Thursday, he’d been asked to do drills with a medicine ball for the Chicago Bulls.

“I got to Detroit, woke up the next morning and my back was all messed up,” Prince remembered. “Once Randy fouled me and I fell into the basket support … my back was already tight, as it was.”

How Prince responded to that moment sealed his future with the Pistons.

“And then he popped up. And he said, ‘All right, let’s go,’ ” Dumars said. “And I looked around and said, ‘That’s my guy. That’s my guy right there.’ ”

“He gets up, checks the ball to Randy – because he’s still on offense – and he went right back at the basket,” Perry said. “I was sold. Ninety percent of guys playing probably would have settled on a jump shot and not challenged him. When he did that, that answered any questions right there.”

Dumars whipped out his phone and called Prince’s agent, letting him know that he wasn’t getting past the 23rd pick. But in a draft with so few sure things, how likely was he to get there? As the draft neared, the Pistons fretted Prince would go to Houston at 15 or to Phoenix at 22, one spot ahead of them.

Instead, here were the 10 players picked immediately ahead of Prince: Marcus Haislip, Fred Jones, Bostjan Nachbar, Jiri Welsch, Juan Dixon, Curtis Borchardt, Ryan Humphrey, Kareem Rush, Qyntel Woods and Casey Jacobsen. (Any further questions about the strength or depth of the 2002 draft?)

Prince, now a highly regarded executive for the Memphis Grizzlies, played 14 seasons and more NBA games (1,017) than the five players drafted immediately ahead of him combined – and more than anyone else in the 2002 draft class. He led the draft class in assists, was fourth in scoring and eighth in rebounding.

And as he goes about his job scouting college players now, he probably hears his own words echoing in his head as he recalled the skepticism with which scouts viewed him: “It all boils down to, can a guy play basketball? I don’t care how big or how little a guy is. If he can play the game, he can play the game.”