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Jayson Tatum’s Old Game Could Use Some New Tricks

The Duke super freshman is a bona fide scorer and one of the surest bets in the upcoming draft, but is there enough upside to warrant a top-three pick?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Jayson Tatum is a teenager with the game of an old man. The Duke freshman already plays like a 10-year NBA veteran, scoring as much with cunning and guile as size and athleticism. He doesn’t have top-end speed so he has learned how to thrive without it, keeping defenders off balance by shifting speeds instead of blowing past them. Tatum has a great feel for creating his own offense, and he only needs a crack of daylight to get his shot off. He loves to play in the midrange and score out of isolations; it’s like he has been locked in a time capsule for the last 20 years.

At 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds, Tatum has the height of a big man and the skill set of a guard, making him a walking mismatch for most NCAA defenders. The initial plan at Duke was to play him at small forward in a supersized frontline with fellow five-star recruits Harry Giles and Marques Bolden. However, a series of injuries in their frontcourt, as well as the emergence of Luke Kennard on the perimeter, has pushed Coach Mike Krzyzewski and now interim coach Jeff Capel into using Tatum primarily as a small-ball power forward. After missing the first month of the season with a foot sprain, Tatum has returned to average 16.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 2.0 steals, and 1.5 blocks a game on 42.6 percent shooting.

On offense, he spends a lot of time playing one-on-one from the midpost and 3-point line, either taking defenders off the dribble or pulling up for the jumper. Based on tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Tatum is second among NCAA players in The Ringer’s lottery big board in number of isolations used this season, behind only NC State’s Dennis Smith Jr. And while Smith initiates the NC State offense and sets the table for his teammates, Tatum doesn’t have a big role in the Duke offense outside of looking for his own shot. Kennard and Grayson Allen do most of the ball-handling; Tatum mostly floats on the perimeter, waiting for his chance to score.

Other than Tatum, the most effective isolation scorers on this list — guys like Smith, Monk, and Ball — are elite athletes. They can get around their initial defender as if they aren’t even there, and they create enough separation off the dribble to get wide-open looks without much trouble. Tatum has to score in different ways. Craftiness is not a choice for him; it’s a necessity. He has already mastered the floater, a shot few 6-foot-8 players have in their arsenal, and one that gives him the ability to score over the top of much longer and bigger defenders. It’s a much harder shot than it looks, but Tatum has the body control and the touch around the rim to utilize it in traffic:

He’s at his best from the triple-threat position, where his defender has to account for Tatum’s ability to shoot off the dribble or drive into the paint. With a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he’s longer than most of the players he’s matched up with, and he knows exactly how to use it. In this sequence against Florida State’s Dwayne Bacon, Tatum is able to neutralize Bacon’s superior strength and speed (6-foot-7 and 221 pounds) by driving into traffic, forcing Bacon to slow down for a half-step as he maneuvers around a teammate. From there, he gets to an open spot where he can shoot his floater:

Tatum isn’t nearly as effective from the perimeter. While he has a smooth and comfortable-looking release when the ball comes out of his hand, according to the numbers at hoop-math.com, he shoots 60.4 percent at the rim and only 32.6 percent on 2-point jumpers. That distribution of percentages would normally suggest an elite athlete with a broken jumper — like Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, who shoots 69.4 percent at the rim and 38.6 percent on 2-point jumpers. However, Jackson is shooting a characteristically grisly 57 percent from the free throw line; Tatum checks in at 85.5 percent. The issue might be his shot selection. He takes a lot of contested attempts off the dribble, and he hasn’t been able to convert them at a high-enough rate:

It doesn’t become an issue often because few college defenders can keep Tatum out of the lane. There aren’t many 6-foot-8-and-taller players in the NCAA who have the size and athleticism to play at the next level, and Tatum is too long and skilled to be bothered by opponents who lack elite physical tools. He struggled in his last two games against Florida State and Louisville, combining to shoot 10-of-28 from the field, in large part because those teams have NBA-caliber athletes up and down their roster. There were several times where his lack of an extra gear became apparent, like this sequence where he couldn’t get around Louisville 7-footer Anas Mahmoud to get a clean look at the basket:

Tatum saved himself by getting to the free throw line, going 4-for-5 against Florida State and 5-for-6 against Louisville. Creating contact is one of the best ways to neutralize an opponent’s athleticism, and Tatum is already fairly savvy at it. He has rare ball-handling ability for a player his size, and he has a great feel for when his defender is overplaying him, allowing him to create contact off the dribble. When he’s in the air, he often seeks out the body of the defender and contorts his own body in kind, so he can draw fouls even when the defender is jumping straight up and down.

From a physical perspective, Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac — a 6-foot-10 freshman combo forward who is also projected to go in the lottery — is the toughest individual defender Tatum has faced all season. However, because Tatum was able to draw two hand-check fouls on him in the first half, the two didn’t get many chances to match up with each other until the very end of the game, when Isaac swallowed up a Tatum dunk attempt. If they’re both taking an elevator, Isaac can get off at the 10th or 11th floor; Tatum isn’t getting much higher than the 8th.

How Tatum fares against elite defenders at the college level is important because so much of his game is based on his ability to create shots. There’s no skill that’s harder to translate at the NBA level than scoring one-on-one, because the caliber of defenders is so much higher, especially at his position. The best combo forwards in the NBA have physical tools that are almost unheard of at the college and high school level. Isaac might be the only defender Tatum faces this season who is significantly longer and faster than him; the NBA is full of guys like that.

Tatum is going to go from being the biggest fish in a small pond to one of the smaller fish in a sea. Take a look at how he compares, in terms of weight and wingspan, with the NBA wings his height (6-foot-7 and taller) who average at least 15 points a game. He is literally moving up a weight class:

Tatum is only 18, so he should be able to put on some weight as he gets older, but he lacks the broad shoulders of players like Carmelo Anthony and Jabari Parker or the raw athleticism of guys like Paul George and Andrew Wiggins. There’s a ceiling to how much he’s going to develop physically, and it will impact how he matches up with the best players at his position on both ends of the floor. Tatum has been a decent defender at Duke, but he hasn’t faced many offensive players like Carmelo and Jabari, much less LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

One thing that doesn’t bode well for Tatum is the difficulty he has staying in front of smaller and faster players. He does a good job of positioning himself to cut off penetration, but he’s not capable of getting in a stance and blanketing someone 25-plus feet from the basket. Switching screens and defending the top point guards in the NBA will be difficult for him. Here is 6-foot-4 Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, who faces Tatum up at the top of the key, puts his head down, and beats him to the rim:

He does have excellent block and steal rates (4.7 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively), particularly for a player without elite athleticism, which suggests he has the awareness and basketball IQ to become a good team defender at the next level. The strange thing is that awareness doesn’t always translate to the offensive end of the floor. While Tatum knows how to get buckets, the rest of his offensive game is still a work in progress. His 3-point shot isn’t quite there yet, as he’s currently shooting 30.6 percent from behind the college arc on 3.6 attempts per game, but the biggest hole in his game is passing.

Tatum rarely looks to move the ball, and it’s one of the reasons he takes so many tough shots. He plays with blinders on at times, driving into traffic and looking to score even when there’s nothing there. It may work for some players, but he himself isn’t physically imposing enough to bail himself out when he gets caught in those situations:

Tatum is averaging more turnovers (2.8) than assists (1.9) per game, which isn’t a great ratio for a guy who has the ball in his hands as much as he does. He can be a ball stopper, and even when he is looking to make the extra pass, there’s no guarantee he’s going to make the right read or deliver the ball on target:

Tatum’s combination of size, skill, and touch around the basket should make him a relatively safe pick. He’s too clever a player not to carve out a niche for himself at the next level, but he may not have the upside to be worth a pick near the top of the lottery, especially if he can’t become a more versatile offensive player. Signs of Tatum diversifying his game — and especially improving as a shooter and a passer — will be key for his draft stock as the season progresses. Getting buckets is important at the next level, but top prospects need to have a Plan B. We’re still waiting for Tatum to reveal his.