AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – The player the Detroit Pistons officially selected instead of Carmelo Anthony finally made an appearance during garbage time of Monday's Pistons victory, to the hooting delight of the Detroit fans.
Darko Milicic scored no points, grabbed no rebounds and made no tangible contribution to the Pistons' 78-56 domination of the New Jersey Nets in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It is just one more example of why many fear the 18-year-old Serbian and second pick in last June's draft could turn out to be the legendary stiff of what has the look of a legendary rookie class – LeBron James, Anthony, Dwyane Wade and so on.
But the player the Pistons like to say they "selected" instead of Anthony scored 15 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out five assists, all while holding his defensive assignment, Richard Jefferson, to a sorry 1-of-12 shooting night.
Tayshaun Prince, the Pistons' second-year small forward, was the best player on the court.
It was another superior all-around performance in these playoffs for Prince, who is averaging 17 points, eight rebounds and 3.3 assists per game and shooting almost 60 percent from the floor – all while playing stifling defense.
"He is just starting to take advantage of his talents," teammate Chauncey Billups said.
So here is the deal. Sure, no one is fully going to believe Detroit made a smart decision in passing on Anthony (unless Milicic actually becomes a player and not just a 7-foot, peroxide-haired cheerleader). The natural reaction is still to call bull to the Pistons' "we didn't need a small forward" line of reasoning.
Because really, who wouldn't want Carmelo Anthony? Who wouldn't want another great player? Who could take anything serious from the same people who tried to sell everyone on Milicic 11 months ago?
But then here's Prince, night after night, making plays, making passes, making defensive stops with those rubberman arms. Here's Prince, with a game as sleepy as the expression on his face, slowly becoming a star in his second season. Here's Prince, making Joe Dumars look like a genius.
His game might not get him a Carmelo-esque Nike deal. But it might get Detroit to the NBA finals.
"We picked Darko because we needed some size," said Prince, who has full faith his teammate has a great future. "If we needed a 'three man' we would have picked Carmelo. You draft what you need."
For most of his rookie season Prince didn't look like someone you build a team around. The 23rd pick never was certain of his role under then-coach Rick Carlisle, playing just 42 regular-season games and averaging 3.3 points and 1.1 rebounds. But the Compton, Calif., native stepped up in the playoffs at least enough for Dumars to continue believing.
This season, under new coach Larry Brown, Prince started 80 times and his game seemed to grow by the game.
"Anytime you get a chance to get out there and play and get your feet wet, your confidence goes up," teammate Ben Wallace said. "You can definitely see the confidence in his eyes."
In today's diaper-dandy NBA, Prince is somewhat of a late bloomer, a four-year player at Kentucky who didn't have a regular-season impact as a rookie, but he is starting to make up for lost time.
"Not getting the opportunity to play throughout all last year it was just a matter of time before people knew what I was able to do," Prince said. "Now going through an 82-game season, now I am starting to get adjusted to it. And now I am just trying to build on it."
Put it this way. Anthony couldn't have been any more valuable to the Pistons on Monday than Prince. And it is not like Prince isn't still in the upside portion of his career.
"A guy with a great post-up game and great touch, who can shoot from outside, make plays with the ball and is a very good defender," Billups described Prince. "He can do it all. And he's only getting better."
So with each one of these all-around brilliant performances, with each shadow defensive effort and triple-threat offensive one that leads to a Piston victory so in the bag that even Darko gets a burn, the whole "we didn't need a small forward" bit makes a little more sense.
In another month, it might make a lot.
- Carmelo Anthony