He opened the tournament with a 25-point second half, showing a level of skill that, combined with his 6-foot-8, 193-pound frame, is tough to stop.
The dynamic performances and high-scoring games continued throughout the week in front of some of the college game’s best coaches, including John Calipari, Sean Miller, Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
Over the last year, Tatum has made the leap from talented prospect to the No. 1-ranked class of 2016 prospect. With that ranking comes the best shot from every player he faces.
“It means a lot to me (to be ranked No. 1) to see that someone has noticed my hard work,” Tatum said. “Now I have it, it seems like I have a target on my back, so I just have to keep working. I have to keep getting better and never get complacent with my game because everyone is coming for the No. 1 spot.”
Fellow UNC recruit Harry Giles knows what the pressure of being No. 1 is like.
He was Scout’s top class of 2016 player for more than a year. The two have openly discussed playing together in college. While there is certainly a basketball reason behind their proposed package deal, there’s more to it.
“There’s a lot of things that make us close, really off the court,” explained Tatum. “Obviously he’s a great player, but it’s really our relationship off the court and how we bond with one another.”
To better understand Tatum's game, personality and recruitment, there's no better person to talk to than his father. Justin Tatum is the head coach at CBC High School in St. Louis (conference rivals of Tatum's nearby Chaminade Prep School), and is on the staff of Tatum's AAU team.
INTERVIEW WITH JUSTIN TATUM
How have you worked with Jayson on his skill development?
Our main thing with him is we just try to be consistent with everything. We started with him at a young age and we knew he was going to be pretty tall when he got older. Our main thing was focusing on ball-handling so that he had that foundation. When I was coming up, because of my height, they put me right in the post. I didn’t want that for him.
Right now he’s taking it and just trying to enhance his game every time he gets on the court. He’s always trying to learn something new to challenge himself. It seems like every time we go in the gym he’s saying ‘Dad, how can I help get this better or how can I pick-up this move?’
Is repetition how he gets better and develops those new moves?
It’s just something, he watches Dirk Nowitzki, he watches Kevin Durant and says ‘I think I can do that.’ It’s natural to him. As a coach and an ex-player, I’ve never seen something that natural in as gifted a player. I’ve never been around a LeBron James or a Michael Jordan so I don’t know how natural it is, but I see it in him. We do work on signature moves. We work on what Derrick Rose does, Chris Paul, the Dirk’s, those are just things he likes to add to his game.
Do you all look at rankings? Does Jayson care that he’s No. 1?
As a 16-year-old he does. When we work out, we’ll be like ‘You’re No. 10 right now. You’ve got to get to No. 1, so you’ve got to do a lot more.’ That’s how we kind of motivate him. Now he’s at No. 1, now we’ve got to do everything we can to keep him up there. It’s important, but our chest isn’t poked out or anything. It’s just something he’s been working his butt off for.
How does he stay No.1?
Consistency. I believe as a player and his dad, we don’t need to show up for every event or play in every tournament. But when we do play, we need to do everything consistent. As I’m coaching and watching him, I’ve never seen him shoot 1-for-16 or not score in a game. If he does have eight points, he’s going to have 15 rebounds and seven assists. He just has to show everything he’s capable of because shots that are misses or makes, you and myself know that everything can’t go in.
What’s his mindset on the court?
He’s in between a facilitator and what some people call a “killer.” He’s getting that “alpha male” in him because that’s something his team needs him to do and because he’s not that type of kid. He’s not the type of kid that will walk by, all cocky, and talk about himself. You won't see that demeanor on the court. You’ll see somebody that, if a teammate is open, and you just hit two, he wants you to hit two more.
But it’s coming. Right now, you have to tick him off. And what ticks him off is when another player tries to get in his face guarding him or fans really against him. That’s what really motivates him.
Did you have a similar mindset when you played?
I was an alpha male. I played with anger all the time, because I’m obviously in the trenches and it’s dirty down there. We watch highlight tapes of me and he’ll say ‘OK dad, I see what you’re talking about.’ He’s the type of kid that Youtube’s everything and wants to watch what the past is. Right now, we feel the basketball right now is a lot more finesse and soft. But when you talk about the Bad Boys in Detroit and the Chicago Bulls, that’s really what I grew up on and that’s what I try and show him.
What are things he can get better at?
Obviously he’s going to grow as a young man and his strength is going to come. Right now, it’s just having the killer instinct from the beginning of the game. You can never tell what type of play you’re going to get from him coming out there because he has a straight face. He’ll have to look at me, if I feel that he’s not playing hard enough or doing something enough I give him signals. He knows that I’m telling him to turn it up some more, play with some heart and passion and get it going out there.
How is he handling the attention of being someone who’s known nationally?
I think he’s doing fine with it. Obviously he loves Twitter so he’s going to retweet everything you guys might say about him. He’s very well-spoken and we actually worked on that. We’ll sit at the house and I’ll ask him a question and he’ll answer it, just to get better at it. We know he’s going to be in front of the camera and the microphone. But when he gets on the bus, they all joke around about it and that’s it. It’s nothing he flaunts. He’s actually happy he played 16s this week because he can help some of his friends and teammates get offers. That’s what he’s about.
What’s it like having all these coaches come to St. Louis to talk to you and your family?
For me, I’m seeing some of my idols coming to recruit my son. As a head coach, I’ve learned a lot from them and tried to take some of the things they do. Now I’m verbally talking to them. I try to pick their brain and just listen to what kind of men they are. It’s not always about coaching. Can my son come and talk to you at 2 a.m. if something is frustrating him? That’s the type of relationship people like to have with a coach.
Roy Williams specifically, have you and Jayson gotten to know him well?
Definitely, it’s been great learning about him. I talk to Roy and his assistant, Steve Robinson, a lot. They come to St. Louis more than St. Louis comes to his games. There’s very big interest there and they’ve been doing their job. UNC obviously is a great tradition school. I showed him highlights of Rasheed Wallace and Vince Carter when they were in school and how big it was.
Is that something you do with each school? Show Jayson highlights of their tradition?
Yep. I kind of tell him the tradition of it from when I was coming up, so he can get a better feel for the schools. I try to give him a history of what he’s interested in.
When the time comes for a decision, besides you and your wife, who else is going to be in the core group to help Jayson?
Right now, we’re not sure. Just people we gained trust from who played at that level and are in that mix of college coaches. People who can tell us things we might not know, because I don’t know everything. Things are happening nowadays that I might not be caught up to. We’ll probably work on that down the road, finding someone him and his mom trust. But I think it’s really just going to be me, her and him with the support of the family.
Jayson has talked openly about playing college basketball with Harry Giles. What’s their relationship like and why do you think it could happen?
Him and Harry, they’ve grown like Siamese twins over the USA Basketball stuff and that was special to see. If they can make it happen to play with each other and that’s what they want to do, I think they should. I don’t think it should be their focal point, because something that might attract them about this school might not attract the other person. If they’re going to do something like that, they’ve got to collectively really understand the pros and cons.
Is he looking forward to competing for a spot on the USA 17U team? Would he enjoy going to Dubai?
I don’t even think he knows where it’s at [laughs]. I think the experience he had with Uruguay will help. He knows what it’s like to play for your country now, going through the experience last year. Possibly being in Dubai for up to 20 days is just a great opportunity for him. Now, he might get a chance to start and be a main factor. I think he’ll come back and progress even more. That’s what he did when he came back from Uruguay (with the USA 16U National Team last summer). When he got home I was like ‘Who are you?’ Why are you so aggressive?’ Going against all those guys every day for almost a month will do that for you. He really blossomed after that experience.
When is he looking to make a college decision?
It’s not concrete, but we’re working on senior year before the high school season starts. We don’t want to wait until after the McDonald’s game and all that. There’s going to be enough hype with him if he keeps progressing. We want him to get this stuff done, so he can focus on his senior year since he has to go through me to win a state championship. He’s really focused on that. He wants to get the school stuff behind him.
What factors will determine where he ultimately ends up?
Able to play the positions he’s being recruited at, able to come right in and help the program. Able to, obviously, be able to relate to the coaching staff and the coaches and being comfortable in whatever city he’s in. I know a lot of people don’t think he’s going to come out of his hometown and his home state, but this kid can. That’s not our focal point to keep him there. We just want him to be happy.
Do you plan on taking unofficial visits to the state of North Carolina at some point?
It’s really in the immediate future. We don’t want his official visits to be his only visits, but if it happens it happens. With me as a high school coach and his mom working, it’s hard for us to get away. We might have to get a grandparent to go with them and they’d have to reiterate all this information to us, so it can be difficult.
North Carolina and Duke are places we definitely want to visit. They’ve been showing a ton of interest and we’d like to get up there and have him experience their campuses before he decides which schools he’ll officially visit.
Do you all watch college basketball during the season?
All the time. He’s looking at how he fits in and (which) coaches let certain people play. He loves watching Coach K and how he let Jabari Parker play. He likes UNC; he loves the colors and the crowd. He doesn’t have a favorite player at UNC, but obviously he fits their style. He likes how Izzo gets the defensive mindset out of his team.
I don’t pressure him to narrow it down to eight or seven, just keep enjoying it. Probably towards the end of this year as he enters his high school season, we’ll shorten his list up. We appreciate everybody showing interest but there’s just some he’s not considering. It’s a blessing to see a kid who is working so hard to get this kind of attention. He’s such a great kid on and off the court.