clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Great Jayson Tatum Debate

The Duke diaper dandy is a source of contention in the Ringer office. Is he deserving of a top-five selection, or is he a player better suited for the later lottery? Will he be a superstar, or will his best talents fade at the next level? Our resident draftniks parse it all out.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Jonathan Tjarks: The Celtics’ decision to move down from the no. 1 overall pick to no. 3 this week puts them in a position to pick between Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson, the two most highly touted forwards in this year’s draft (although the Lakers could still throw a wrench in their plans if they end up passing on Lonzo Ball at no. 2). However, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume Philly takes Markelle Fultz and L.A. picks the hometown kid. While Jackson has gotten more publicity this season, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor is one of the few writers who has consistently rated Tatum over him. He called the Celtics trading down last week, so even if their front office isn’t reading his columns for advice, they seem to be operating from a similar set of assumptions. Kevin, what’s the case for Tatum at no. 3, and what type of player do you think he will be in the NBA? I’m not as high on him as you are, but it would be good for you to lay out his strengths before I start hating.

Danny Chau: Let’s set the table a bit first: Tatum has the biggest rankings disparity among the top-10 prospects in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide. O’Connor has him as his no. 2 prospect; he thinks Tatum’s a superstar. Tjarks and I have him at no. 9; we clearly don’t. Nine, two, nine. That makes Jayson Tatum a sandwich, but is he a hot dog? (Sorry. Ignore that.)

Kevin O’Connor: Go-to scoring is the hardest skill to find in the NBA. I’m talking about players you feed the ball to in an emergency situation toward the end of the clock, players you lean on in the fourth quarter when the defense is locked in and the game is muddied in the half court. These are irreplaceable talents found on every championship in league history. The league has evolved, but they’ve remained critically important even in this new era. This general idea is why I rank Tatum second on my big board.

Tatum possesses feel and fluidity at the highest level, and he’s still a pretty good athlete to match. So many players enter the league with a loose handle, but at just 19, Tatum displays advanced maneuvers you’d expect from a long-time pro. If you took every freshman prospect this century and graded them on their footwork at the same age, Tatum would rank in an extremely high percentile. He’s not a springy athlete, but he’s fluid with a quick first step. His body control allows him to twist, bend, and contort his body while attacking. Tatum is silky smooth.

Dependable perimeter-scorer-types like Kawhi Leonard, Carmelo Anthony, and Gordon Hayward have developed into excellent offensive threats, and none of them were elite leapers or knockdown shooters at 19. Paul Pierce wasn’t either, and he’s perhaps the best comparison for Tatum given that his game is also founded on footwork. Nothing matters more than scoring, but sometimes there’s more focus on what Tatum can’t do rather than what he does at arguably the highest level of any player in this draft class.

Chau: You’re right, Kevin. Shot-making and footwork are important. Evan Turner taught me that.

In any case, there’s a lot of focus on what Tatum can’t do because that’s just the nature of talent evaluation at this stage in the draft process. Time doesn’t heal all wounds for elite prospects, it creates new ones. The reason top-flight athleticism and versatility are so highly prized in the draft is because they give teams a greater margin for error in their selections. If a player projects ability to guard three or four positions instead of one, that gives him better odds of surviving in an NBA environment; if a player has boundless athleticism, he will inherently be able to make plays that others less blessed wouldn’t be able to make, which allows for some breathing room in how they develop the rest of their game. Draft picks are gambles, and teams are trying to find the prospect who will hurt them the least — a prospect who, even if a few skills don’t translate, has enough ability in other facets of the game to overcome that. It’s a specialist vs. jack-of-all-trades debate, for sure.

O’Connor: I agree with almost every word of that — except for the last part. Teams are playing scared if they’re trying to find the prospect who will hurt them the least in the top five of a friggin’ loaded class. You can have your specialist vs. jack-of-all-trades debate in the middle of the first round. I want superstars. I want championship players. I want players who impact winning in a big way in the playoffs. The go-to scorers in this league do that more than anyone else.

Chau: This still boils down to a cost-benefit analysis, and our valuation of his scoring ability differs greatly. I’m not willing to place all my eggs in the "Jayson Tatum is an elite NBA scorer" basket when there are other players in his range who project to have elite potential in multiple disciplines.

Tjarks: The only guy in this draft whom I trust to be that guy at the next level is Markelle Fultz, and he’s going to be the no. 1 overall pick. The bar for being an elite shot creator in the NBA is so high that it’s tough to assume that any NCAA player can be one of those guys. You are going up against the best of the best, in terms of size, speed, strength, length, and basketball IQ, and being able to get a shot off guys like Kawhi and Andre Iguodala is extremely difficult.

Chau: Tatum is very good at scoring the ball in suboptimal situations, which was a gift at Duke. But what if Tatum can’t get to the rim against NBA-caliber defenders? What if he’s stuck hoisting midrange fadeaways out of comfort at the next level? Does he have a standout secondary skill?

O’Connor: But where’s the evidence he can’t create against NBA-caliber defenders? We’re talking about a teenager who isn’t done getting better, and he’s already ahead of the curve in so many intangible categories. You said elite athleticism gives teams a greater margin for error — that’s true. So does an elite mind-set.

Tjarks: The one thing that I can’t get out of my mind when I think about Tatum is the McDonald’s All American Game a year ago. The exhibition itself is pretty pointless, but the practices are usually fascinating because you see the best of the best going at each other on both sides of the ball for two days. I remember watching Jahlil Okafor go up against Myles Turner and Karl-Anthony Towns three years ago and thinking he just couldn’t hang with them athletically. Tatum was matched up against Josh Jackson a lot in 2016, and Tatum couldn’t get around him. All Tatum could do was force long 2s with a hand in his face. I was talking to an NBA executive about Jackson a couple of months ago, and he told me the best players in his class are all scared of him. As soon as I heard that, I flashed back to those scrimmages. Jackson is probably the best perimeter defender in this draft, and when Tatum gets to the next level, he is going to face guys like Jackson every night.

O’Connor: Saying Tatum will go against a defender like Jackson every night in the NBA is flat-out false. It’s a hyperbolic statement, like a scare tactic a politician would use. Jackson is an elite defensive talent. There aren’t many guys who defend like Jackson at any level.

Tatum’s McDonald’s experience should be viewed as nothing more than a stepping stone in his development. It was likely one of the first times — if not the first time — Tatum went against a defender of Jackson’s caliber. Tatum had just turned 18. Jackson was (and is) 13 months older — more physically developed and more adjusted to his matured body. They were at two completely different stages of their growth.

Tatum shot a lot of long 2s against Jackson. Great. That’s about all he did at that stage. His shooting range has since expanded. Tatum barely shot 3s in EYBL or FIBA. Then he shot 117 in 29 games at Duke, at 34.2 percent. It’s the attempts I care about, not the percentage. He’s progressed significantly in a short amount of time. There’s a lot of confirmation bias happening here. You saw Tatum get beat by Jackson at McDonald’s, then everything that’s since happened has piled on.

Tjarks: It’s not just his performance against Jackson in high school, it’s how he dealt with that level of individual defense in college, too. I thought Tatum struggled with Jonathan Isaac’s length and athleticism in Duke’s two matchups with Florida State this season. He got the better of Isaac a few times on offense, particularly when he was able to draw fouls by taking advantage of Isaac’s overeagerness. But I thought Isaac won that matchup on the whole. In Duke’s two games against Florida State this season, Tatum shot 12-for-30 from the field and had four assists on nine turnovers. Here is how a lot of their one-on-one possessions went down in those two games:

Why is this important? Because Jackson can be an excellent defender AND the type of player Tatum sees every night at the next level.

O’Connor: In the first clip, Tatum got the ball with five seconds left on the clock and managed to create a shot. Isn’t that a good thing? He tried pump-faking Isaac out of his shoes to draw a foul — another good thing — but Isaac didn’t bite, and he simply missed the shot. The second clip might say more about Isaac’s defensive upside than it does anything about Tatum. It’s remarkable how quickly he can rotate and play recovery defense. In any case, I need some clarification: Jackson and Isaac can’t be both elite defensive prospects and be dime-a-dozen defenders.

Tjarks: I think Jackson is one of three elite perimeter defenders in this draft, along with Isaac and OG Anunoby. This is obviously just a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but if there’s a couple of those guys in every draft, it would take only seven to eight years for most teams in the league to have one of the best defenders in the country from their particular season of college basketball. That may seem hyperbolic, but let’s take a quick stroll around NBA depth charts: Kent Bazemore. Jaylen Brown. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Iman Shumpert. Jimmy Butler. Wesley Matthews. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Andre Iguodala. Trevor Ariza. Paul George. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute. Tony Allen. Justise Winslow. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Andre Roberson. Aaron Gordon. Robert Covington. Al-Farouq Aminu. Kawhi Leonard. Those guys are all rabid defenders who get (or will get) outrageous sums of money to lock dudes up on the perimeter. If you are going to be one of the best wing scorers in the game, you better be able to get consistently (and efficiently) get buckets on them.

O’Connor: If Tatum is being defended by those guys on a nightly basis, then he’s doing something right as a player to deserve that level of attention. Those guys usually don’t defend anyone else but the best scorer on the other team. Tatum going against Roberson one night and then Butler the next is exactly what you want if you’re the team that drafts him.

Tjarks: The point is that if Tatum is going to be the player you project him to be, he’s going to be guarded by the other team’s best perimeter defender on a nightly basis. If he’s not, then I’m not sure the rest of his skill set brings enough to the table to really be a great third or fourth option on a team. With all of the other elite prospects in this draft, there’s something else they can hang their hat on besides one-on-one scoring ability: It’s perimeter defense for Jackson and Isaac, elite 3-point shooting for Malik Monk, or the ability to run a team for Fultz, Ball, De’Aaron Fox, and Dennis Smith Jr. So even if they aren’t taking 15-plus shots a game, they can be really valuable. I feel like there’s no Plan B for Tatum, so he has less margin for error if he can’t consistently create against elite defenders.

I’m not saying there’s zero chance Tatum becomes a Pierce- or Hayward-type player, but his path to doing it would mean reorienting his game. He would have to become more of a distributor who can pick apart help and prevent defenses from collapsing on him; he would have to become an elite off-the-dribble shooter. He was a dominant scorer at the college level without overwhelming physical tools because he put his head down and refused to take no for an answer. But that’s not going to work as well when he’s not going up against guys who went pro in something other than sports.

O’Connor: I largely agree with your evaluation of Tatum’s weaknesses. My Tatum scouting report in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide makes it clear that he has warts as a passer. His vision off the dribble has room for improvement. But he’s not an unwilling passer. He will go into ball-stopping mode at times, but it’s often by necessity. He does a good job of making heady decisions and shows flashes off the dribble in the half court:

Then, Tatum sometimes looks like a point forward handling in transition:

Two bricks by Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard. Was it poor vision by Tatum? I don’t think so. Tatum had bad moments forcing shots — but let’s not ignore the good moments. Tatum’s passing is an overblown issue. He’s not a ball hog. As for the defense… look, again I agree. He needs to improve. He’s not going to be a lockdown guy. But he’s long and wide enough to hold his own if he’s engaged. My hope for Tatum is he’s drafted onto a team that preaches defense so that he develops good habits early in his career.

Tjarks: All the guys at the top of the lottery, even Fultz, are unfinished products. Making the right picks in the draft is about figuring out which prospects have the highest floor, the most realistic ceiling, and which skill sets are easiest to build around. Tatum could definitely change his approach in the NBA, and a lot of guys do, but from his perspective, I don’t see why he would. He has been a star his whole life, he’s going to be a top-five draft pick, and even inefficient 6-foot-8 scorers get paid mega bucks in the NBA. Rudy Gay has made more than $100 million in his career. Harrison Barnes just signed a $94 million contract. Jeff Green has made more than $70 million in his lifetime. If you told them they needed to change up the way they play the game, they would probably slap you with a stack of money and tell your broke ass to go home. All those guys can look like All-Stars on a night when their shot is falling. It’s doing it consistently on a night-to-night basis while also creating shots for your teammates that separates them from the best players in the world.

O’Connor: Basketball is about more than what happens on the court. Character is a significant part of the evaluation process. It definitely impacts what you’re watching. Player personality might be everything. Teams dive so deep into the background of these players. They give them psychological evaluations. They interview them at the combine and at workouts. It’s arguably the most important part of the evaluation process.

My point is that while you might assume Tatum has no reason to change his approach because of his existing performance, everything I hear (and observe) about Tatum is that he is of high character. He busts his ass in the gym and wants to get better. His progress shows on the court. He’s mature. He’s a good teammate. He’s intelligent. He likes to learn.

All of this matters, and it factored heavily into my no. 2 ranking for Tatum. If he were a putz or had the maturity of a 16-year-old, there’s no way I’d have him ranked there. He’s evolved as a player since you first saw him at the McDonald’s All American practices. He’ll continue to get better, and with the off-court intangibles that he has, I’d put money on him showing a willingness to pass more frequently or defend with more consistency if that’s what the team he’s drafted onto demands of him. Players with Tatum’s skill and personality tend to thrive.

Tjarks: NBA teams, as they should, do a ton of personality and character research on players.

There’s no question that a huge part of whether or not a player ends up succeeding at the next level comes down to their internal motivation, interpersonal skills, and ability to adapt to the norms of the environment around them. It’s just difficult from our position to know what’s real and what’s not, and it’s certainly impossible for us to fairly judge these kids as people based off what we hear secondhand.

I recently wrote profiles on Derrick White and Jonah Bolden, talking to each of them for about 15–20 minutes on the phone. I also talked briefly with their agents and coaches and NBA front-office people who have been researching them. From what I can tell, they seem like nice-enough kids. Would I be confident in vouching for them in terms of trusting them with millions of dollars? No. And I know a lot more about them personally than I do anyone else in this draft. Long story short, I’m leery about making character judgments about these kids from a distance, especially when they are all so young and still growing into who they will be as people.

Let’s bring this back to the Celtics, since that’s the only team we are really supposed to cover at The Ringer. The people in Boston seem pretty confident that they will sign Gordon Hayward, and in that scenario, whomever you draft at no. 3 is, at best, your third option on offense. Tatum’s whole selling point is that he can get one-on-one buckets late in games, but there is no way he’s holding the ball late in the clock so that Gordon and IT4 can spot up in the corner. At that point, if he’s only taking 10 to 12 shots a night anyway, wouldn’t you rather have the superior defenders?

O’Connor: Nah. Not even a little bit. The Celtics already have enough defenders and role players. They need great players.

Tatum is the best player available, and, like I said earlier in the conversation, if I ran a team I’d target potential superstars who impact winning deep into the playoffs. Role players are easy to find. Stars are not. Tatum’s floor is high enough that he can be a competent bench scorer, even in a worst-case scenario. His ceiling is the no. 1 or no. 2 go-to scorer on a title team, and he’ll be available with the third-overall pick. Give me those odds all day.

Chau: Sorry, I went out to get a snack, but it looks like you guys locked everything down here. Speaking of snacks, looks like our boy Tatum has a hot food take:

Oof. That settles it: Jayson Tatum will never prosper.