Behind The Scenes With Jayson Tatum

He committed over the summer on National TV, but there was a lot going on behind the scenes of the Jayson Tatum recruitment before he publicly announced his commitment to Duke. We got a behind the scenes look at the recruitment, the player, and just what Coach K is brining to Durham next year.

Being familiar with your coaching background, what does it mean to you to see Jayson be the caliber of player that he is and is growing to be?

Justin Tatum, father of Jayson Tatum:  It’s a real joy because the thing is we kinda came into this thing together with him developing as a player and me developing as a coach teaching him and training him. I wanted him to be the best and to be taught by the best, so seeing him playing the game at his age at such a high level and seeing so many people recognize that he understands this, it’s a testament to what we’ve been going through. I’m just ecstatic to watch him play. When our teams play against each other that’s for sure what I dread, but when I’m sitting in the stands watching him play as a parent, I’m just a fan of his when I don’t have to grit my teeth or coach him, it’s pretty good, it’s pretty fun.

When did Jayson start taking the game seriously and playing organized basketball?

When the YMCA started leagues, I think they started around five or six years old. I think Jayson had been growing at a nice rate and you can see that he’s a nice height relative to his classmates at the same age. So he started early when the rims were like eight or nine feet up and then I went overseas for awhile and when I came back after about two years or so, that’s when I decided to start coaching him because there were a lot of people who were wanting to coach him and I said let me come home and be a big factor in his development, I would love to be the one teaching him the way. 

What do you think contributed him to have such a feel for the game and basketball IQ that he seems to have ?

I’m going to say this, repetition of playing at a higher level against older kids all the time helped him a lot. Jayson never played against guys his age really until he got to high school or for Nationals. Being a high school coach when he was coming up, I would always take him to varsity practice and he would never be rattled when somebody older was guarding him. I just kept trying to get it into his head to take a look at the next shot and try to shoot a high percentage shot before you take a crazy shot. I would talk with him a lot about knowing why you come off a certain way off screen and rolls or when you split this double, here’s who to look for and where to look for them. I always put that in his head from the beginning because I didn’t develop as a player until late. My thing was I was always athletic and could jump, so I played a power forward role and you know back then, power forwards ranged from 6’6 to 6’9 and I played there and I was comfortable there. So when the doctor told us that Jayson was going to be between 6’6 to 7 foot, I said lets put the ball in this kid’s hand so he can learn outside/in instead of inside/out. That was my whole concept with him when he was coming up as a player. 

Was Jayson always a natural wing player when you put the ball in his hands like you just described?

Yeah, that’s all he knew. I kept him outside and he played point guard. I’ve been coaching him since he was in the 3rd or 4th grade, so I put teams around him with players that wanted to have the same passion and desire that I felt my son had at that time coming up or at least the passion that I wanted him to have at that age for the game. So he’d play the 1 or the 2 and if I didn’t have any bigs on the team, he’d play the 5 sometimes, but he always played the wing real naturally. I would always tell him to be a player that the coach never wants to take off the floor, so that was our approach with him because he would also rebound, get steals. It was just real, when we find old tapes of him you will see him doing a lot of things then that he’s doing now. The game has really slowed down for him and we really drilled it into him.

It’s obvious your playing career helped shape how you coached and developed Jayson growing up. How much do you think your prior playing experience professionally helped informed how you handled the recruiting process with Jayson once it got going?

Being recruited, I was being recruited pretty heavily coming out of high school as well. I remember going through the process with me and my mom who at that point was the only one who was helping me with talking to the coaches and dealing with being recruited and things like that. There were a lot of things I could have done differently because I ended up going to school but having to be a Prop 48 my first year, so I knew I had to sit out that whole year and then I even had a situation after that to play the following year. So learning from those things during my time in college and being recruited by Oklahoma State and Cincinnati and SLU were the top 3 schools that I wanted to consider to go to. Then to have an opportunity to go play for a Nike traveling team before I went overseas professionally, I kinda learned the system and different people like big time players or mid-major players and what they went through. So when I went overseas for a little bit and learned how to play with the professionals and against groups that had great coaching and also learning how to deal with agents. Then with one of my best friends being Larry Hughes, I just took away a lot from all of those experiences and now with my son having the opportunity to play at a high level, me and his mom got together and we knew there was only going to be so many schools that he was going to be interested in, so we just narrowed it down from there. We tightened it on up in terms of the phone calls and when people could call and everybody was respectful and Jayson handled it well. The biggest price, the main thing he dealt with was with all his fans wanting to know where he was going to go, that was probably the most pressuring thing-but aside from that, everything went smooth for us.


Did setting up those communication requirements with the coaches start around sophomore year or at a different point?

His freshman year they obviously couldn’t directly call him or contact him, so they tried to build a relationship through people they think we know, so some of the relationships started like that. Then it got much easier knowing that I was a high school coach because they could contact me anytime, so that kinda helped a lot. That’s how with Coach K, actually Duke didn’t start getting really interested until sophomore year that we found out about, but during that time is when I got a chance to tell Jayson about Frank Haith at Missouri was interested and all those guys, Coach Cal. So we started building those relationships during his freshman year and then during the summer going into his junior year there were just certain ones that we knew had a real chance. Maybe Illinois would stay in the mix or sometimes Texas would call, but I had schools that asked me if there was an even a chance to recruit him, so the type of player he was helped people to see what kind of recruit he was.


That sounds like you were real selective during the sophomore/junior year, what led you guys to want to be so selective during that time period with the programs that ultimately were going to be the realistic options for Jayson down the road?

It’s just what he felt comfortable with during that time. Growing up he was a big Ohio State fan, diehard fan, he loved them. But Ohio State was one of those schools that didn’t know if they wanted to recruit the type of player like him or didn’t even know if he might have interest until they read an article or something like that. Then Kansas with one of Aunt’s who graduated from there, he came up on the Kansas/Mizzou rivalry. Then Missouri was there too. So the schools that had a chance were the schools that Jayson always dreamt about playing at or watching or seeing.  If a UCLA tried to come in the mix, he’s not familiar with them, he had no connection with them. So these schools that he had a connection with either through family members or he came up watching them during his teenage years and if he remembered them going to Final 4s or watching them on tv like an Arizona, those schools were in the mix. Then we knew who our son is.

Then obviously it was well-reported about SLU’s role in your son’s recruitment, what was it like for you guys having the family connection there and balancing that with the needs of Jayson’s recruitment as it unfolded ? How did you guys handle that?

The separation of the family, that was one of the major things. We were high on it just because of being there, but there was never any pressure that you must do this. We told him, if SLU is in your Top 5, it’s because you want them in your Top 5. He knew that going in but SLU was actually, he felt like I’m a St Louis kid, I love this city and a lot of things with it and I could be the guy here and this and that and we asked him, “are you going to get better there ? Are you going to get the exposure and competition and are you going to get coached?” So those are some of the questions we asked him as he thought about a potential dream-type scenario for a potential career here. So he thought about it and I’ll tell you, Coach K’s interest with how he was just overwhelmed us, it was just his natural kindness, he’s easy to get along with and talk to. He really opened Jayson’s eyes three days after they won the National Championship, he was in our house and Jayson was like, “this is unbelievable.” Nobody else made that type of push or made him feel that way besides SLU, they tried, but that’s how we got down to SLU and Duke. Realistically for a long time it was just those two with Duke and SLU. SLU had a great chance and if it had worked out it would have been great, but at the end of the day I know for sure my son is going to play where he’s supposed to play at Duke.

How did you guys as a family feel about all the recruiting conjecture and fan discussion about SLU’s role in Jayson’s recruitment?

We felt like people were going to have their opinions and say what they want to, but with people who can have a normal conversation with and who we have open minds to, they knew realistically SLU was right there. If there were things that were different about SLU, then Duke probably wouldn’t have had Jayson, we just know that he was going to be coached at the highest level at Duke. The way Coach K described how he was going to coach him and teach him how to play and with wanting to see him play at the level that Coach K is able to coach him at having coached at Duke and USA and all that, it was just like a no-brainer. We knew if he was going to reach those goals hopefully anyway, but we knew he was going to get that challenge with Coach K and his coaching staff and we felt like that was the best thing for Jayson.

Is that the way Duke kinda presented themselves in the recruiting process of Jayson, or did they take a different tact most of the times in their communication with Jayson and the family?

I don’t know, they always said that he was going to be coached and he was going to get better and he was going to get the best out of Jayson for however long he’s supposed to be there. I think the way to describe their approach was it was always genuine. That’s what we really took a lot out of, it was very genuine with them. We knew that they wanted our son and Coach K knows that he’s going to be able to do a lot of different things with him and that made Jayson feel like that’s a person I want to play with. He definitely said that they are going to challenge him and get after him and make sure he’s the best player he can be while he’s at Duke.

What kind of specifics did they give you on how they want to develop Jayson?

Making sure that they find, that they let him play the game the way he can and let the game come to him. Also making sure he’s aggressive 90% of the time that he’s out there because he’s able to make plays even when he doesn’t have the ball. They may even put him at the 4 sometimes they said, and they said while he won’t be the point guard all the time, he’ll have free reign to do what he’s capable of doing with the ball. Coach is getting a basketball player, and that was just music to our ears because Jayson needs to be able to have the ball to take pressure off his team and other players and instead of coming off a bunch of screens and that’s it, he can come up and be able to make plays for himself and his teammates. So that was great, it was just good talk.

So you mentioned they got involved back during sophomore year, how did they get started with Jayson and how did the relationship progress over the course of the recruitment?

Yeah I believe so, I think they reached out sophomore year after he did the USA the first time going into his sophomore year. They reached out and said they were going to start recruiting him and things like that. It was on from there. It was gradual, nothing forced. They told us that there’s only going to be so many players that we’re going to recruit in his class. We want to touch base with you here and there, it wasn’t like we want to check on you 5 times a week, we’re not going to be calling you 2, 3 times a day, it wasn’t that. There wasn’t one time where I felt like they were overly concerned about losing him as a recruit, we had excellent feedback with them and we just had a good feel for them. We knew we were going to hear once or twice a week from Coach Capel or Coach Scheyer and we’d hear from Coach K. They all had the same message, if anything they did different was when they intensified on something more than the other coach did, but usually they were the same. Honestly, Capel could get into it, Scheyer is more milder and Coach K is the same way but he can get into a different tone when he starts coaching which is good, but normally they are similar. It was all good.

Was there anything during your conversations with them that was either surprising or unexpected?

It was just with those conversations how down to earth and real and comfortable they make you feel. First, me as an ex-player coming up and never loving/hating Duke or whatever and not even thinking that I would ever in my life meet Coach K and that he would be in my house. With me coaching and wanting to learn from the best, I never would have thought that now I have a relationship with Coach K to where I can reach out now and ask him thoughts on things. So when he came to the house, I, we were more nervous than anything, so when they talk to you and they make the setting comfortable, it’s just like being with your childhood friend that you’ve known for 20 plus years. That’s the thing that stood out to me the most is just how comfortable they made you feel knowing that we know who is sitting in front of us and this conversation has meaning, but that’s how comfortable we were able to feel with them. It wasn’t a specific phrase or conversation we had, it was just how comfortable with them being them and that was good.

Was that meeting right after the National Championship win a turning point in Jayson’s recruitment with Duke ?

If you follow Twitter, I’ll give you a hint. If you know the day that Coach K came into our house and then the next day—what did Jayson do ? He narrowed his schools down, so I would say yeah that was a big turning point.


What was said there that you think made it a turning point?

Just acknowledgement that we are on top of their board right after winning a National Championship. You know they have that goal of we have to win the National Championship, but then we knew we were right there below that because they won it and now they are in our house. That right there, you don’t have to say too much, but that was them showing up and watching it live and Jayson seeing himself in those situation and knowing that he wants to be in the best situation for him to win because Jayson wants to win everything. I mean this year I gotta sit up and see if I’m going to surrender to my son  to let him win a state championship, haha. But he wants to win a National Championship and he knows that Coach K can help him have a higher chance to do that.

How did the rest of the conversations go as a family after that in-home visit reference Duke ? Did the feelings change towards them then?

After the visit in the home, it was just, it was almost a no-brainer and seeing the facilities on the visit, seeing the recruits Coach K was looking at bringing in, that’s when our talk got really serious to narrow things down to Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and SLU. Then we put everything in a bubble and looked at the pros and cons of everything. It got real serious after that.

A lot of people were kinda in a way caught off-guard with how quickly Jayson committed to Duke relative to other top players in his class, what were the main factors you think with Duke that led him to want to make that early commitment?

The reasons is he’s not big on having that extra drawn-out attention. Once that time comes and he knows it, he’s ready to get it done now and its funny with his friends because if they are taking a lot longer, he’ll joke and be like, “what are ya’ll doing, if you know where you want to go, why would you want to go through all the extra stuff but he also says to each his own, what’s good for you is good for you.” He’s just that type of kid who doesn’t want to tag along the process because there’s no point with that in his eyes. He came to me and he told me Dad, I want to get bigger, I want to get stronger, I need to get my jump shot off faster and I need to know what school I’m going to go to so I can get that weight off my shoulders and just be a kid. Once he did that and he came and announced to Duke, you should have seen it after he did that, his smile was so big and he was just so happy that it was over. It was like he was a different kid then and that’s just who he is man, he’ll kinda joke around with the other guys and he’ll tell them, “man, you need to get this stuff over with, get that load off your shoulders. No matter what place you are going, he just wanted to get it done.” It’s like with Harry and his family, when we met with them, we were just kinda asking about what direction do you see yourself going in, what do you think you are wanting to do because Harry and his family know what he wants with his process. We just wanted to make sure that they were handling the process like us.

What was the day of the announcement like for you guys when Jayson committed to Duke at Peach Jam on ESPN?

Aw man it was great because and it made it even better that in the game before, the kid who made the winning shot plays for me and it’s one of Jayson’s best friends. Knowing that he was going to announce right after a shot like that on national tv and Jayson went through, it was just great. The whole game we were thinking what it would be like if he went to announce if his team got their butt kicked and he didn’t play well, but they turned it up as a team, he made most of his last group of shots and then with his friend’s shot and then he announced, it was surreal and crazy, but it was great.

What kind of feedback did you have with the Duke staff around the announcement day?

Well we had told them he was coming and he was planning on doing it around the Championship game because they had asked us when we were thinking about doing it and they wanted to make sure that they were still there, still sticking around for that. They were excited, but we obviously had had conversations with them that whole night the day before, so it was really good.

From the sounds of talking with other parents of recruits you have played an active role in talking with them about the recruiting process and Duke, what made you want to play such an active role in that regard?

First it was someones that I knew with Derryck’s dad (Thornton) and Frank’s (Jackson) dad so we’d talk and you’d come to the house and things like that. Just like my experience as a coach in helping kids get into school, Jayson’s not my first one, I’ve had like 15 kids who have gone on to Division 1 or 2 to play basketball, so I would talk with them about the process and what to expect from the colleges and really, I was just trying to be somebody different that they could talk to. A lot of people with agendas will try and talk to these parents and they know that I’m just a parent who has helped his son and molded him to get to where he’s at right now and I’m helping other kids, so that’s why they are pretty comfortable with me because they know I have a bit more of an open-minded opinion. I remember Derryck actually introduced me to Frank Jackson’s Dad and Scheyer told me they were recruiting Wendell so I had a chance to meet with his dad for like 3, 4 days and we met his mom too and we had a great lunch and had a good time. I told them what to expect from Duke and how we loved it. I always told them you can take my opinion with a grain of salt because you know where your son is going to go, but if he has a chance to play at this level at Duke, don’t pass it up.


Moving towards wrapping up, what’s Jayson working on for this final high school season to prepare for Duke?

I told him to set goals for yourself with the highest one obviously being to win a state championship, he’s already got those 3 USA gold medals and all the Gatorade awards and all that stuff, so I told him to make sure to set those goals. Also I told him to find a way to dominate the game mentally because during some games this year, he’s going to get a lot of hard fouls, a lot of booing and stuff like that, so I just want him to mentally challenge himself and his teammates. Those are my things with him, he works his butt off on a lot of things and if I see something he’s going to need, I’m always talking with him about offensive end type stuff including getting more lifts on his legs and stuff like that. It’s like I’m giving him up, it’s just like mom is giving her son up, I’m doing the same thing and I’m definitely trusting Coach K with him and I know they are all going to do a great job with him, I just want to make sure that Jayson’s senior year is one where he’s healthy and where he gets a lot better.


What’s it going to mean to you to see Jayson potentially competing in the Jordan Brand Classic, McDonald’s game, all that stuff?

Man it’s just like living in his shoes, just being excited for him to live his dream and to have a chance to be there for him and to guide him through it-that’s what I’m thinking. It’s going to be great.

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