Duke freshman Jayson Tatum lived up to the sky-high expectations placed upon him by virtue of his status as a top five recruit, finishing with averages of 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game for Mike Krzyzewski and the 28-9 Blue Devils.
Tatum stands just over 6'8" in shoes, with a 6'11" wingspan and an upper body that looks as if it can fill out over time as he matures physically. He combines that with an advanced, diversified skill level and flashes of two-way potential, which makes it easy to see why Tatum has been a top rated prospect all season long.
Tatum's bread and butter remains his strong isolation game, where nearly a quarter of his possessions came from, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Tatum was either too big, too quick, or too skilled for virtually any defender opponents could throw his way, and Duke exploited that whenever they could, particularly as the season moved along.
Tatum is a very smooth athlete at 6'8", with a wide array of moves and footwork well beyond what you would typically expect from a prospect who just turned 19 earlier this month. Tatum has a full assortment of effective jab steps, crossovers, turnarounds, fadeaways, and in-and-out dribbles to get his defender off balance and create separation. He used this combination of size, quickness, and ability to create separation with devastating effect, especially when guarded by slower power forwards.
Tatum has added to his arsenal over the last year by diversifying his offensive attack. That improvement starts on the perimeter, as Tatum connected on 34.2% of his four three-point attempts per game, an encouraging, albeit still inconsistent, addition to his game for a player who struggled from deep at times as a high school prospect. Tatum is most effective on the perimeter when he has time to gather himself, as he shot 40.5% on unguarded catch and shoot shots, according to Synergy Sports Technology, most of which were from three-point range. That form broke down a little bit when rushed, as defensive pressure resulted in some inconsistencies in his balance and shooting motion, and the 29.3% Tatum shot on contested catch-and-shoot shots ranked in the bottom third of qualified players. Shortening his release and speeding it up will likely be a focus for Tatum early on in his career, especially if a team eases him into a role rather than asking him to be a primary initiator from day one.
Tatum also showed the ability to make shots pulling up off the dribble, especially going to his left, where he was particularly comfortable using one or two rhythm dribbles to generate space. This is both a blessing and a curse, as while it allowed Tatum to shoulder a heavier offensive burden for the Blue Devils, he was also a little bit too willing at times to settle for tough, contested, midrange jumpers. Nearly 40% of Tatum's non-transition field goal attempts came on two-point jump shots, according to hoop-math.com, which he connected at just a 40.2% rate on, a particularly bad number considering so few of them resulted in fouls drawn.
Tatum does show the ability to post up when he has a size advantage, a useful skill for a player who figures to bounce between both forward spots depending on his team's scheme and the personnel around him. In fact, the 1.303 points per possession Tatum generated ranked in the 99th percentile in terms of efficiency, per Synergy Sports. Much of the coordination and footwork that allows Tatum to create separation on the perimeter also shows up on the block, where the 19-year-old has an impressive combination of moves over either shoulder. Drop steps, fadeaways, and hook shots are all in his arsenal even at this early stage of his career. This doesn't expect to be a big part of his game at the next level, but having it as an option to attack mismatches will certainly be something he can exploit from time to time.
With that said, there is some concern projecting certain aspects of Tatum's offensive game to the next level, most notably his ability to get to the rim against similar athletes. Like many tall forwards at the collegiate level, Tatum played a large portion of his minutes at the power forward spot to make way for Duke's deep perimeter attack. This afforded Tatum a quickness advantage that may not always be there at the next level.
Despite Tatum's size and fluidity, he's not an exceptionally explosive athlete by NBA standards, with an average first step that was further slowed down by a high and loose dribble. Tatum's skill level, footwork, and ability to change speeds helped him mitigate that, for the most part, at the college level, although even there he settled for more difficult pull-ups and floaters than you would have preferred, shots with a high degree of difficulty and a comparatively low expected value. Tatum will have to further refine his ball handling and diversify his skill set in order to consistently create efficient shots for himself at a high level in the NBA.
It would also be beneficial for Tatum if some of his ancillary skills were a little bit more consistent. He's gotten better shooting off the dribble, but it's still not at the point where he can consistently create value out of pick and roll sets. He's gotten better shooting off the catch but, even with a high release point, still shows inconsistencies in his mechanics, and can be bothered by a strong closeout. His handle has improved to the point where he can consistently attack a closeout and utilize some of his advanced footwork, but is still unrefined enough where it slows him down considerably and can be prone to smaller guys digging from the perimeter and forcing turnovers.
Another area of Tatum's game where he's shown enough progress to generate optimism, but not quite enough to be consistently effective at this stage of his career, is as a passer. Tatum has a perplexing combination of, at times, having a score first mentality, then at other times looking like he's seeking out passes that aren't there, forcing down to bigs on high-risk dump offs inside. At 2.6 assists per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, Tatum flashes the vision and potential to create for his teammates down the line, which is clearly a positive development for a player who wasn't always known for that in the past, but it's an aspect of his game that still doesn't feel fully fleshed out yet, partially due to his ball-stopping mentality.
The defensive side of the court presents many of the same dilemmas in terms of an intriguing base to build upon, but one which isn't yet fully developed. Tatum has the size and length to defend either forward spot, and uses his length well to contest shots, close off passing lanes, and harass players on the perimeter. He showed marked improvement in these areas as the year moved on, yet his technique can frequently break down, whether that be struggling to close out under control or an inconsistent perimeter stance, making him susceptible to misdirection moves. He also struggles defensively in the post, a combination of not engaging the offensive player far enough away from the hoop and doing so with an upright stance, along with a still underdeveloped lower body.
That last aspect, the development of his core and lower body strength to allow him to play more time in the NBA at the power forward spot, is of considerable interest. Tatum collected 7.2 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes, pace adjusted, while blocking 1.4 shots per 40 minutes when adjusting for pace as well. If Tatum is able to improve his lower body strength as his frame fills out, continuing to get minutes as a face-up power forward is certainly in the cards, and would help maximize some of the strengths we saw from Tatum at the college level, even if the league-wide trend in the NBA towards making the power forward spot more of a "big wing" might make this advantage not quite as pronounced as it would have been in the past.
Jayson Tatum remains one of the more unique players in this draft, with an advanced array of offensive moves, high skill level, and a physical profile that affords him considerable potential, and versatility, on the defensive end as well. While this keeps Tatum's floor relatively high, there's still some question about exactly what his role will be at the next level. Can he continue to hone his offensive game to the point where he can develop into a high-level, efficient, shot creator for both himself and his teammates? If not, can he continue to refine his off-ball skills to be a more consistent shooter on the perimeter, and thus a more effective secondary offensive option? These are the questions NBA decision makers will be tasked with figuring out over the next few months as they try to pin down exactly what Tatum's ceiling is.