Jayson Tatum had the slowest start of anyone in the 2017 NBA draft class, and it probably had quite a bit to do with the fact that his season didn’t actually begin until early December.
Tatum suffered a foot injury during a Duke practice in October, one that kept him off the floor for roughly a month and out of the lineup for the first eight games of Duke’s season, and despite an impressive performance in a win over Florida in Madison Square Garden in just his second game as a collegian, Tatum was not all that good for the first half of his freshman campaign.
Through 13 games, he was shooting under 43 percent from the floor, below 30 percent from three and had more turnovers than assists as Duke dealt with what can best be described as a power struggle amongst the stars on their roster. At one point, Duke was 3-4 in the ACC. But by the end of the year, Tatum was averaging a more-than-respectable 16.9 points, 7.3 boards and 2.1 assists while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 34 percent from three while thriving in a small-ball four role previously occupied by the likes of Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram.
The question now is whether or not Tatum can do the same at the NBA level. Will he be tough enough and strong enough to play the four at the highest level of the game? If not, does he actually have the physical tools to be able to create offense against NBA perimeter defenders?
2016-17 Stats: 16.8 points, 7.3 boards, 2.1 assists, 50.4% FG, 34.2% 3PT
STRENGTHS: You cannot talk about Jayson Tatum without talking about just how good of a 1-on-1 scorer he is. According to Synergy, there was no high-major player that averaged more isolation possessions per game than Tatum did, and he did so while posting a solid 0.896 points-per-possession, the 70th percentile nationally. He also led all high-major players in efficiency on post-up possessions, scoring 1.303 PPP.
Tatum’s offensive repertoire is as polished as any one-and-done you’ll see. His bread-and-butter is his jab series — his footwork, whether facing up or playing with his back to the basket, is impeccable — but he has the entire package offensively: crossovers, step-backs, turnaround jumpers, fadeaways, jump hooks, in-and-outs, rip-throughs and he even pulls out the Dirk Nowitzki one-foot fallaway jumpers from time-to-time.
He’s only gotten better offensively as his jumper has continued to develop. In high school, one of the knocks on Tatum was that he didn’t have three-point range; he thrived on mid-range pull-ups. As a freshman, however, he shot a solid 34.2 percent from beyond the arc, getting better as the season progressed. The stroke is there — he shots 85 percent from the free throw line and averaged 1.22 PPP on unguarded jumpers at Duke — but his release, at this point, is still somewhat slow. If he doesn’t have time and space, when he rushes his shot, is when the inconsistency kicks in.
Tatum has a reputation for having a tremendous work ethic, and this is precisely the kind of issue that gets fixed with reps. I’m not concerned about his ability to make shots in the NBA, including from the NBA three-point line. He’ll get there in time.
The other thing that Tatum has going for him is his frame. He stands 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, which is more than respectable for a guy that is projected to play the combo-forward — or a hybrid 3-4, a small ball four, a big wing, however you refer to it — role in the NBA. He already looked much bigger as a freshman than he did as a high schooler, and his broad shoulders suggest he has a frame that can hold more weight.
In addition to weight, he needs to add lower body strength and quickness (we’ll get to that in a minute) but Tatum not only showed flashes of having the toughness to guard in the paint. He was more of a play maker defensively than you may realize, averaging 1.3 steals, 1.1 blocks and 6.0 defensive rebounds per game.
Put another way, Tatum has the tools to potentially be a versatile, multipositional defender at the next level.
That versatility, both offensively and defensively, is incredibly valuable the way the NBA has been trending.
WEAKNESSES: Generally speaking, the biggest concern that scouts have with Tatum is his jump shot, but as I mentioned earlier, I’m not all that concerned about whether or not he will be able to develop NBA range in time.
To me, the bigger concern is his shot selection. According to hoop-math.com, roughly 40 percent of Tatum’s shot attempts in the half court came on two-point jump shots, and he only made 40.2 percent of them. This is why Tatum’s efficiency numbers are relatively low given his skill level; he’s not getting the extra point that comes with shooting a three, and he’s not drawing fouls at the rate that he would by getting all the way to the rim.
This goes to a broader concern that I have with Tatum: Just how high is his basketball IQ? Tatum had a bad habit of being a ball-stopper with the Blue Devils, particularly early on in the season, and he didn’t seem to read the game all that well. He missed the extra pass on ball rotations, he struggled to identify where help defense was coming from, he seemed to decide on the play he wanted to make instead of reacting to what the defense gave him. For example, often he’d try to force a dump-off to a big man instead of seeing the defense collapse, leaving shooters open on the perimeter.
To be fair, he did get better as the season progressed, and this may have just been a case of a freshman doing freshman things when his season started six weeks after everyone else. But it is something to keep in mind; sometimes workout warriors with every move in the book don’t know when to use those moves.
There are also questions about Tatum physically. For starters, he’s not all that explosive. He does have a decent first step going to his right, and his long strides make it tough to catch up to him once he gets a step, but he does struggle to turn the corner against quicker defenders, particularly off the bounce. This is an issue that is magnified by Tatum’s loose handle, and it begs the question: Just how effective of a perimeter scorer is he going to be if he’s guarded by NBA wings?
Tatum also has a habit of “playing high” — he doesn’t sit in a stance and he isn’t all that low when he puts the ball on the floor, which is part of the reason he lacks some initial burst. Some of this can be fixed as he adds lower-body strength, which is something that he is going to need to be able to handle defending NBA fours. I’d also guess he probably needs to add at least 15-20 pounds to his 205 pound frame.
The question, essentially, is this: Tatum needs to develop one of two skills — the quickness to score on (and guard?) NBA wings, or the strength to be able to handle NBA fours in the post.
NBA COMPARISON: Anyone that watched Tatum play last season will understand why the easiest comparison to make is to Carmelo Anthony. They’re both roughly the same size with roughly the same skill-set — isolation scorers that can face-up, score in the post and thrive on making tough, two-point jumpers. The difference, however, is that Melo was a good 30 pounds heavier than Tatum after his one-and-done season, which is why he averaged 22 points and 10 boards and led Syracuse to a national title. Melo is the prototype for the kind of big wing or small-ball four that has become so valuable in the NBA.
I don’t think Tatum will ever be as good as peak-Melo was, and that’s assuming he puts on the bulk to be able to play the four. Perhaps the better comparison, then, is Paul Pierce, who was more of a natural wing scorer, a guy with less-than-stellar athleticism and a terrific mid-range game.
Either way …
OUTLOOK: … it’s probably unfair to put Tatum’s name in the same conversation as a pair of 10-time all-stars would could both end up in the NBA Hall of Fame one day, but if everything comes together for him, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could average 20 points in the NBA for the next decade.
That’s how good of a scorer, and how hard of a worker, he is. I have little doubt that he’ll iron out some of the wrinkles in his jump shot and tighten up his handle.
For me, Tatum’s ceiling is going to be determined by his ability to do one of two things: Putting on the strength to be able to play the four in the NBA, where he is going to be able to have matchups that he can exploit, or adding enough initial burst and explosiveness that he’ll be able to create offense against NBA wing defenders.