Things we forget about Tayshaun Prince: 1) He is only 24. 2) He barely played last season. 3) He is a college graduate. 4) He already has, in his young adult life, moved from the West to the Southeast to the Midwest. 5) While he looks like a cartoonishly skinny, open-mouthed kid, he grew up in Compton, Calif., the hard side of L.A., which means 6) he really wanted to be drafted by the Lakers and 7) he is about to go home and play them.

Narrow your gaze on the player who could make a real difference in these championship finals. Everyone knows about Shaq, Kobe and Karl, and Rip, Ben and Rasheed. But Prince likely will draw the defensive assignment on Kobe Bryant. Prince — whose points are no longer counted in Detroit projections — is a player capable of nabbing 20 in any of these games. And Prince can, like a magician with a rabbit, pull off something startling when you least expect it — a flying block, a baseline baby hook — that makes you stop and say, “How did he do that?”

Narrow your gaze. Because a big part of these NBA Finals will be which Tayshaun comes to play.

“Have you shown your best stuff in this postseason yet?” I asked Prince after the Pistons earned the right to play for the NBA crown by defeating Indiana.

“I definitely haven’t,” he said, as if grateful for the question. “I’m still waiting. And I’m pretty sure everybody else is waiting, too — especially with the attention I put on myself last year.”

Believe it or not, there are times Prince wishes he never showed that nova burst of talent. He wonders what it would be like if he had stayed on the bench last spring, been brought along more slowly, like a carefully bred racehorse, only allowed to run the age-appropriate races. Would the expectations this season be less? Would the disappointments never happen?

“I do sometimes think it would be better,” he said, his head tilted at that strange angle that makes it seem as if he’s deep in thought, “but at the same time, I really had no choice. I didn’t play the whole regular season. I had to go out there and try and make a statement, to say: ‘Hey, I can play.’ “

He made that statement, all right. He was so impressive in the playoffs last spring, people slammed Rick Carlisle for not playing him sooner. He was so impressive that when it came to using the No. 2 pick in the draft, team president Joe Dumars passed on small forward Carmelo Anthony, essentially saying, “We already have a great young player at that position.”

And then came sophomore year.

Those difficult matchups

These have not been the playoffs of Tayshuan’s dreams, let’s be honest. After a terrific series against Milwaukee (he averaged 17.4 points and shot 59.3 percent), he frequently was shut down against New Jersey. He had some goose-egg performances against the Nets and the Pacers. (His averages have fallen to 9.9 points and 41.8 percent shooting.) He snapped when a reporter asked whether he was losing his confidence, saying, “How can you ask a player if he’s losing his confidence?”

He sounded, and looked, like a player who was losing his confidence.

But looks — and sounds — can be deceiving. And Prince’s waters run deeper than you think. This is a kid who as a college junior threw his hat into the NBA draft, like so many others, then, suddenly, privately, decided he would wait. This is a guy who sat quietly his entire NBA rookie season, knowing full well he was capable of doing more than he was being asked, then showed it when it counted most. This is a guy who, according to his critics, was being swallowed by the playoff pressure, but there he was, flying like a cannon shot to block Reggie Miller’s shot and save Game 3, and there he was, stuffing Al Harrington in the tense closing moments to help save Game 6.

To the impatient observer who wants more shots, more points, more drives, Prince seemed to fade in these playoffs like an old photo. But sometimes he was busy defending stars like Richard Jefferson. Sometimes he was busy being defended by the defensive player of the year, Ron Artest. And sometimes, yeah, he just wasn’t at his best.

Still, the Pistons kept winning, and now he is heading home to Los Angeles, where he was once named the best high school player in all of Southern California. He was once the Prince of the city. And while the noise and fanfare of a big-time NBA championship might be a concern for most second-year players, remember, Prince not only starred in a big-time prep program, he also starred at big-time Kentucky — and even Lakers don’t get treated as royally as Wildcats — and he seems to calm down most when the insanity level rises.

“I know when to shut my phone off,” he said of these NBA Finals. “I know the task at hand.”

Message clear: We like you

When Dumars decided to forego Anthony in the draft, he called Prince and told him. Dumars is an understated guy. Prince is an understated guy. So not much needed to be said. But much was understood.

“I got his reading immediately,” Prince recalled. “He was saying, ‘I got faith in you.’ That was huge. When you have the president of your team saying he’s confident in you, that knocks everything else off the table.

“I hear people now say, ‘What if the Pistons had Carmelo? How well would they do?’ But they don’t understand, it would be a different situation than what Carmelo has in Denver. Denver needs him to play that offensive role. If he were here in Detroit, he wouldn’t be getting all those plays called his way. He had a great year, so people are going to make those comparisons. But it’s the not the same situation.”

In many ways, Prince sees this season as his own rookie year. He played in only half the regular-season games last season and started five of them. He averaged 3.3 points a game. He was, essentially, a fill-in guy — until the playoffs, when he made a quick name for himself.

“That put a lot of pressure on me because guys this year played me tougher knowing what I could do,” Prince said. “Maybe that was a good thing, because it’s forced me to be a better player.”

But he is still growing. Still learning. And occasionally, still stumbling. Sure, there are times you want to scream at Prince: “Get tougher! Look meaner! Show more confidence!” But think about his biggest plays, like that flying block on Miller. Did Prince have some evil look on his face then, or did he pretty much look the same way he does when he jogs back to the bench — easy, calm, even languid?

Looks can be deceiving. On the day Prince was drafted, he watched his stock fall from early first-rounder to mid-first-rounder to late first-rounder. His skinny frame and the fact that he stayed in college four years were seen as negatives (don’t get me started). And so the Pistons nabbed him with the 23rd pick.

Prince had two thoughts that day. The first was, if he was going to fall that far, he wanted to fall all the way to pick No. 27, the Lakers.

The second thought he expressed a few days later:

“I’m going to make a statement. Everybody’s going to know, sooner or later, that they made the wrong move.”

He now has a chance to address both of those issues. L.A. beckons, and a one-time Prince of the city returns. We’ll see how badly he wants a crown.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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