Jayson Tatum’s prodigious ability surfaced early. Even prior to high school, his family had received interest from multiple college programs. It was obvious to everyone from the beginning that he possessed greater talent than his father, who himself had been a solid college player at Saint Louis.
Tatum toured the underclass Nike circuit in 2013, and when we released our early rankings for that class, his name appeared near the top. Meanwhile, early offers poured in from the hometown Billikens along with Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Marquette, Memphis and Missouri.
Duke would rush into the picture as well, and by the 2014 spring Tatum had joined the St. Louis Eagles 17-under squad and begun to tour on the EYBL circuit. He proved to be one of the best players on the circuit as an underclassman, averaging 19 points and seven rebounds per contest.
The fervor surrounding his recruitment achieved such intensity last fall that he opted to cut his list to 10 finalists: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Arizona, Illinois, Missouri, Wake Forest, Connecticut and Saint Louis.
Tatum’s high school junior year and 2015 travel season further underscored why he’s considered a top shelf prospect. Back on the road for the Eagles, through 17 regular season games he averaged 20 points per contest shooting just under 50 percent from the field. He added eight rebounds and two assists per contest as well.
At this weekend’s Peach Jam, prior to this morning’s semifinal contest, he raised his numbers to 25 points and nine rebounds per outing.
With such a fully actualized recruitment, Tatum saw no reason to forestall his decision. He cut his list to four — Duke, Kentucky, UNC and SLU — earlier this year and announced for the reigning champion Blue Devils on Sunday morning. He became what Mike Krzyzewski hopes will be the first cog in an epic 2016 class.
Tatum’s game boils down to skills, both in style and approach. He sets up in offensive areas and takes shots that would be very poor decisions for high school players, and in fact some of his scoring moves genuinely look NBA-ready.
He’s at his very best receiving a pass at the high post, where he subsequently can make one of three scoring choices: Immediately turn and shoot a facing jump shot; back his man down off the dribble and shoot a semi-contested turnaround; or spin and attack the rim.
His choices aren’t so much related to whether he can get his shot — at 6-8 and exquisitely talented, that’s rarely an issue for him — but how he simply feels on the catch. He’s very much a rhythm scorer who delivers the way players do when they’ve been professionals for a decade. The difference between this year and last is that he’s even more polished and efficient, not so much doing anything differently but rather becoming more effective at it.
Tatum also is a good athlete who soars over the top with dunks, but his best athletic quality actually is his body control. Tatum makes deft moves even at full speed and even in traffic, getting soft shots onto the rim in transition and finishing easily over shotblockers.
He’s also an excellent rebounder, as his numbers indicate, and his length and size on the wing should enable him to develop into a fine defender as well.
Tatum remains slender but has added considerable muscle over the past year and certainly shouldn’t suffer from any significant deficit as he progresses through college and into the NBA. That’s one factor explaining how he has become a prolific free throw shooter, as he combines at least above-average quickness with improved strength and a commendable physical presence inside.
In terms of intangibles, Tatum possesses outstanding pedigree and rises to the occasion in critical moments. He never has been afraid to take the big shot and embraces his role as the alpha. Again, his sense of purpose and self-belief are uncommon for a high school player and explain in large part why he seems to play a much older game than his age would suggest.
You wouldn’t expect this section to be very lengthy, and it isn’t. Tatum’s refinement makes him arguably the best player in the class. Still, he doesn’t stride onto the court free from any weaknesses or questions.
Thinking big picture, the No. 1 challenge he must overcome is a first step that’s merely pretty good. When matched against the world’s best athletes, will he be able to play a complete game or will he become pigeon-holed into a contested turnaround jump shooter? Yes, Carmelo Anthony has made a living as that kind of player, but he doesn’t do so without inviting great criticism onto himself and free from rankling inefficiencies on occasion.
|Tatum’s turnaround jumper likely is the best in all of high school hoops|
Tatum also must improve his three-point shot. It’s odd that such an excellent medium-range shooter — and 88 percent free throw shooter — would be so subpar from deep, but the numbers speak for themselves. In 23 total games with the Eagles this year, Tatum has shot just 4-23 on long bombs (17 percent).
All that said, these concerns likely won’t affect him deeply at Duke, where he’ll face opposing teams with perhaps only one player taller than himself. He won’t need to set up 22 feet away from the basket and will enjoy advantages anywhere from 17 feet all the way to bucket.
The short version is that Tatum should step into the collegiate game as one of the country’s most dynamic scorers. No matter what talent ultimately surrounds him in Durham — he’s closely linked to Scout’s overall No. 1 prospect, power forward Harry Giles — Tatum could emerge immediately as the squad’s most valuable offensive player.
Assuming he quickly makes a jump to the NBA, he should enjoy a lengthy and lucrative career at that level as well. He’s simply too gifted at 6-8 for a spot in that league to elude his grasp, provided of course that he’s able to stay healthy and focused on his career.
Ultimately, he’ll slot either as a volume scorer in the pros or perhaps gain just a notch more quickness and shooting range to become more effective as a multi-dimensional performer. He should succeed either way, but that’s the scenario that will determine whether he’s a good NBA player and someone who could achieve even greater stature within the game.
Focusing on his next stop, at Duke, Tatum will arrive to significant fanfare and deservedly so. But this is a highly sophisticated fan base that has become accustomed to superstar talent in the Coach K era, and of course the comparisons to Blue Devils of yore will circulate.
Most immediately, fans should reject comparisons to recent Duke star Jabari Parker. While both Parker and Tatum like to set up in the high post, Parker was a significantly more accomplished three-point shooter while Tatum possesses superior body control on drives. He’s also a faster athlete in the open floor and an equivalent ballhandler, but not as gifted a passer.
It’s a non-Duke player, Anthony, to whom Tatum compares best. Having watched them both extensively in high school, even their movements mirror each other’s closely. Anthony had quicker dribble moves — particularly his crossover — and was slipperier in traffic, while Tatum is more efficient and a better rebounder and defender. But in terms of size, athleticism and style, that’s the best example to remember prior to the day Tatum dons a Blue Devil uniform.
And while he may not don that uniform for long, he’ll almost certainly fashion a career that folks in Durham will remember for many years. Tatum is the No. 3 ranked player in the 2016 class and, along with Giles and wing Josh Jackson, is a frontrunner to corral the top spot.