Coming into the college basketball season, NBA scouts had differing opinions over the best prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. Ask around, and you'd find that many preferred offensively gifted Washington guard Markelle Fultz. Others thought Kansas forward Josh Jackson's athleticism and motor put him on top. A few even liked dynamic NC State guard Dennis Smith.
Duke forward Jayson Tatum also was mentioned in those discussions, but more often than not the word associated with him wasn't best. Instead, it was safe.
Standing six-foot-eight with a seven-foot wingspan and possessing polished scoring skills beyond his years, Tatum was considered a low-risk bet. And that matters. In the NBA draft, can't-miss players sometimes do. For the scouts who spend their waking hours evaluating and projecting the crude, unrefined basketball abilities of still-growing teenagers, Tatum's mature game was a breath of fresh air.
"He's going to average 20 points in the NBA," a league scout told VICE Sports before the NCAA season. "The rest of it, we'll see, but there aren't a ton of wings who can create their own shot at that size with ease like he can. Plus, he's a hard worker."
Once Duke's season began, however, a funny thing happened. Tatum stumbled. He shot poorly, made poor reads, struggled around the rim against bigger, longer defenders, and generally looked out of sorts, if not downright lost. Beyond an early outburst against Florida, Tatum's polish was missing, and those same NBA scouts began to wonder if The Safest Prospect in the Draft™ was something else entirely.
That was then. Duke may have lost to South Carolina in an NCAA tournament upset on Sunday, but concerns about Tatum's readiness have mostly vanished.
What happened? The numbers tell much of the story. In Tatum's first 13 games with the Blue Devils, he averaged nearly 16 points a game—which is nothing to scoff at—but shot a disappointing 43 percent from the field and below 30 percent from behind the arc. He also posted a sub-1.0 assist-to-turnover ratio, didn't seem to have a good sense of timing, and had trouble meshing with teammates like Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen.
Since then, Tatum has raised his level of play. Heading into March Madness, he was averaging 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game with a 56.8 true-shooting percentage. Since the 1992-93 season, only one other high-major freshman has put up comparable numbers: LSU's Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. And Tatum's stats might even be more impressive, given that the Tigers played roughly six more possessions per game than the Blue Devils did this season.
Tatum's polish is back, too. He can get buckets in just about any situation, and ranked No. 5 among all high-major players in points scored in isolation. He creates separation as well as any player in the country, mostly due to fluid body control and a bevy of offensive tools. Here's Tatum taking on All-ACC defender Isaiah Wilkins, one of the country's top combo forward shutdown artists, while lighting up Virginia—the second-best defense in the country, according to KenPom's adjusted efficiency metrics—for 28 points on eight-for-13 shooting:
As you can see, Wilkins is kind of just guessing here. He has to respect Tatum ability to get to the basket on dribble drives, typically using spin moves or rip-throughs. Knowing that, Tatum instead utilizes his favorite tool: the jab step. Because of his extremely long legs and high center of gravity, Tatum's jab steps create more space than those of the average player. Once he has that space, he can put the ball on the floor, utilizing either a quick hang-dribble jumper if he keeps the ball in his right hand, or a right-to-left crossover to gain even more space into a step-back.
In basically every circumstance, Tatum's footwork is immaculate. Moreover, he does two small, almost unnoticeable things very well. First, he seems to decelerate faster than most players, which allows him to stop on a dime and rise up for a shot. Second, his ball pick-up off the dribble is clean, which lets him utilize the space he creates for open looks on either side of the floor. Neither skill looks like much, but they mean everything for Tatum's elite scoring ability.
Tatum is also skilled in the post, where he's the most efficient high-major scorer in the country, averaging 1.367 points per post-up. Again, you can see the refined footwork and the overall fluidity. On face-ups, he's terrific at and utilizing his long legs to create space on the step-back. With his back truly to the basket, Tatum has the one-legged, Dirk Nowitzki–style fallaway down to a T.
Given that Tatum has a high release point and nature fade on his jump shot, this skill should translate well to the NBA, where switching everything on defense is in vogue and the ability to punish smaller defenders in the post is becoming increasingly valuable. In fact, Tatum has shown some ability to switch on defense himself—albeit inconsistently—which also ought to make him a successful pro wing.
That said, scouts still have concerns about Tatum, questions that are holding him back from being a consensus No. 1 pick. He averages more than three turnovers per 40 minutes, which isn't exactly ideal. Many of his turnovers come from trying to make passes that aren't there, or from not being strong enough on the ball when slashing to the basket. The latter should improve over time, as Tatum's body matures, and the former already improved over the course of Duke's season. Tatum has superb passing vision; if he learns how to make better reads and understand how defenses are attacking him, it's not crazy to imagine him averaging something like four assists per game.
His ability to finish around the rim is a bigger potential long-term issue. According to Synergy, Tatum ranks in the 63rd percentile in scoring around the basket on non-post-ups. That's good! But there are signs that he could struggle against longer, stronger NBA defenders:
As you can see, Tatum doesn't have a ton of lift or elevation from a standstill—to make an imperfect track-and-field analogy, he's more of a long jumper than a high jumper. On the move, he can finish above the rim, and even provide spectacular moments due to his body control and hang-time. Eventually, that could help him become an average or even above-average NBA finisher, but that's hardly guaranteed.
Tatum's surge has changed the conversation around his draft prospects. In NBA circles, he's considered a "plus-plus" prospect in terms of his background and personality. He comes from a basketball family: his father, Justin, played at Saint Louis with former NBA player Larry Hughes, who is also Tatum's godfather. Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal went to the same high school as Tatum and has taken him under his wing, as has former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway. It also helps that Tatum has a reputation for being a tireless worker who is always adding new wrinkles to his game.
In the here and now, league talent evaluators still use the word safe to describe Tatum—but that's not all.
"For me, Tatum and Fultz are the best guys in this draft," one Western Conference scout told VICE Sports. "They're the two guys that I would want to tie my franchise to."
"Look, there are a lot of guys in this draft that could end up being the best player," an Eastern Conference scout said. "Gun to my head, I think I go Tatum right now. I trust the scoring ability at all three levels, and the trajectory he's on. I like guys who get better throughout the season, and Tatum has done that."
Personally, I still think Fultz should be the No. 1 pic, but this is becoming a real race. While Tatum didn't put a personal stamp on the NCAA tournament, his upward trajectory over the second half of Duke's season can't be discounted. As NBA talent evaluators move from the small sample size theater of March Madness to the fine-toothed comb evaluation period of pre-draft workouts and interviews, Tatum's impressive skills and makeup should shine, making decisions at the top of the draft that much tougher.
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