A Prince To Be Admired
J.P. Prince almost lost it all and now is ready to help the Vols reach the top.
As a senior at the University of Tennessee J.P. Prince is going to have a lot of expectations on his shoulders this season. The 6-8 shooting guard is going to be expected to continue the stellar defensive play that has earned him the praise of opposing SEC coaches in each of the last two seasons. He’ll be expected to show improved touch on his perimeter shooting, a facet of his game that has been a weak point during his collegiate career. Perhaps most importantly, the Volunteer’s coaching staff has charged Prince with the task of being a leader for his teammates, not just on the court but off it as well. This really is no different than any other team in the country this season, all of which will have upperclassman who the coaches are counting on to set the tone early in the year, keep the younger players focused and motivate those who are tired and lagging in practice. Chances are though, when Prince preaches to his teammates this season, his words will carry more weight than most – he probably shouldn’t even be playing the game today.
A little over three years ago Prince – then a budding sophomore at the University of Arizona – went in for a routine procedure to have his wisdom teeth removed; three weeks later he awoke from an induced coma. As a result of the procedure the former high school All-American developed a life threatening infection that forced doctors to place him in the coma and on a respirator in order to save his life. While many of the details of the illness beyond that are fuzzy (Prince and his family still don’t feel comfortable discussing many of them) what is known is that when he awoke, he was a shell of the teenager who had won the Gatorade Player of the Year award for the state of Tennessee in 2005.
Prince had lost reportedly 30 pounds, leaving him a spindly 6-8 170-pounds and barely able to function physically. Having been one of the elite high school players in his class and a prized recruit at Arizona less than a year before, the rising sophomore suddenly found himself unable to talk and passing out when attempting to walk more than ten feet. The idea of ever playing basketball again seemed to be a long shot at best.
“It was tough at first, being in a hospital for a month and then hearing people tell you that you can’t play basketball, you can’t walk, can’t talk, you’re just kind of sitting there,” Prince says. “It was a scary time in my life for me and my family.”
Certainly it wasn’t how they had envisioned things playing out when J.P., a Parade All-American committed to playing at Arizona for famed coach Lute Olson. For the shooting guard it was a win-win situation. A chance to play at a major program and an opportunity to get out of Tennessee, something he had been interested in doing, much to the dismay of in-state power Memphis who had recruited him heavily as well. Yet here Prince was, barely alive and seemingly chained to his bed by a body that wasn’t strong enough to support itself. You think that was going to deter him from proving everyone wrong? Forget it.
Not for the teenager who had been one of the best at his craft in the country for someone his age. Not for the freshman who had already established himself as a match up nightmare and defensive stalwart in his freshman season with the Wildcats. And certainly not for the kid who dreamed of following his cousin Tayshaun to the bright lights of the NBA.
“I just wanted to prove everyone wrong,” he says. “For as many people out there that want you to do well there are just as many who want to see you fail. For me, it was just an opportunity to silence the critics.”
First there would have to be a change of scenery though. After suiting up in just three games his sophomore season at Arizona, Prince decided he wanted to transfer – ironically to a school that was closer to home. Enter the Vols.
While nearby Vanderbilt was the first school close to Prince’s Memphis home to offer a scholarship, Tennessee seemed to pique his interest the most. The Volunteers coaching staff wasn’t too familiar with the sophomore, but with the help of former guard Dane Bradshaw, a high school teammate of Prince’s, Bruce Pearl and his assistants decided to take a look. Shortly thereafter, Bradshaw phoned Prince to tell him Tennessee was interested in having him come down to campus – the rest as they say is history.
“When Dane called me and got me in touch with Coach Pearl it was just such a good match because Coach is a real players’ coach,” Prince says. “Their offense was also a real good fit for me with the emphasis put on attacking from the wings.”
Prince joined a team that was ripe with backcourt talent including Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith and current Vol Tyler Smith. That squad would earn a berth in the Sweet 16 and set the stage for even bigger things to come for the hoopsters in Knoxville. Prince who served as a role player that first season has blossomed into a presence at both ends of the court – particularly the defensive end – and now stands poised to help Tennessee make a major run into the postseason in his final season of eligibility. The value of having a player like Prince on the roster isn’t lost on the UT coaching staff.
“He came in on a team that featured a lot of good perimeter shooters such as Chris Lofton and he was a completely different dimension of player for us,” says assistant coach Jason Shay. “He picked up his role and added tremendously to our team. Now his role is starting to increase, he can rebound, he can guard multiple positions and now he’s got to be able to improve his perimeter shot to help expand his game.”
Work on that shot has been slowed by offseason shoulder surgery, but as of the last couple of weeks Prince says he has been back on the floor running at full speed with his teammates. There will be no shortage of talent for the Vol’s this season, returning essentially everyone from a team that won 21 games last year and took an early first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. Scoring certainly won’t be an issue for the team with the likes of Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, Scotty Hopson and Bobby Maze all returning with at least a year’s experience. In a conference like the SEC that will feature a bevy of scorers on the perimeter though, having a lock down defender with the type of size and length that Prince has will be a major factor in the Volunteer’s success.
“J.P. understands position really well,” Shay says. “I think he does a pretty good job of listening to scouting reports and he can usually beat guys to the spot. He’s been one of our better defenders taking on the ball charges and even does a nice job of taking them off the ball as well. He is very long and this allows him to get into passing lanes and make a lot of plays as an off the ball defenders that some guys can’t. His advantage is his high basketball IQ translating to the defensive end.”
Prince certainly would like to finish his collegiate career with a strong individual showing, but is perfectly happy to play his role if it means winning a national championship – a goal that will be within reach if Tennessee is hitting on all cylinders. The senior is quick to point out that experience will be the key for him and his teammates when they take the floor this season, particularly come March.
“Last year we were a young team, we didn’t have Chris [Lofton] and JuJuan [Smith] and for the freshman it was their first year playing college ball,” he says. “We were in a lot of situations we hadn’t been in before. This season though, I don’t think we’re going to find ourselves in a single situation that we haven’t been in before.”
Having been in a situation that few people, let alone any of his teammates will ever be in, Prince will be weighing every action and moment carefully this season. Regardless of the outcome, there’s little question the senior will be appreciative to be along for the ride.