"Situational Analysis" is a series of articles that seeks to examine the circumstances that most often influence an NBA prospect’s success. Each player will be scored on a scale from 1-10 in four different categories: NBA-specific skill(s), fatal flaw(s), collegiate/overseas/pre-NBA environment, and ideal NBA ecosystem.
Jayson Tatum is a 19-year-old small forward who averaged 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists during his fresh season for the Duke Blue Devils. He has been on NBA scouts’ radars since his days at Chaminade Prep. NBADraft.net currently has him projected to go No. 5 overall.
Scoring. It’s the most basic, fundamental, and essential basketball skill. From the instant anyone picks up a basketball, the primary mission is to put it through a hoop that stands 10 feet off the ground. Those who can do it with consistency and creativity are rewarded with praise, adulation, playing time, attention, more praise, and more attention.
Jayson Tatum excels at this — perhaps more than any other prospect in this year’s draft class.
He possesses what scouts affectionately call an "old-man’s game" — an ingrained, instinctual knack for putting the ball through the hoop in a variety of ways. It typically takes players years to develop those old-man tricks. Tatum has most of them at the tender age of 19.
Tatum has yet to encounter a player who can defend him in isolation situations. High schoolers clearly weren’t up to the task. College players didn’t fare much better. Tatum’s bread-and-butter: catch the ball 17-20 feet from the hoop on either wing, jab step, dribble (either hand), cross (either hand), and either rise for a mid-range jumper (swish) or blow by the defender to get to the rim, where he could finish with either hand through contact.
Carmelo Anthony has been the most popular/prominent comparison for Tatum throughout his development, and it’s easy to see why. Both players are too quick for big men and too big for many perimeter players. At 6-8 with a 6-11 wingspan, Tatum’s skillset generates mismatches on both ends.
Tatum has shown the ability to knock down shots consistently from the perimeter, but it’s from 15 feet in where he truly shines. In the modern, analytics-driven NBA, it’s those shots that NBA defenses typically allow in order to prevent open 3s and lay-ups. If a player can convert these "dead-zone" shots with efficiency and consistency, he can be a useful asset to exploit these defensive vulnerabilities.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Tatum completely flames out, simply because his scoring skills are already so good. Some guys just know how to play.
On a scale from 1 to 10, Tatum’s ability to put the ball in the hoop rates at an 8.
It’s the first (and often only) question scouts ask whenever a prospect can score so effortlessly: What else can he do?
It’s an odd thing that happens to players such as Tatum once the NBA Draft rolls around. Suddenly, the one skill he has worked so tirelessly to hone becomes a counterintuitive liability. People who get paid to evaluate and discuss these things have a tendency to pick apart a player they perceive as one-dimensional and offense-first.
Often, it’s a fair criticism. When scoring comes easily to a player, it often isn’t seen as a priority to develop other facets of his game. It’s OK to be a mediocre defender or a subpar passer/playmaker in high school or college when you lead your team in scoring every night.
In the NBA, the most successful teams are built around one or two lethal scorers, and those players are often among the very best all-around talents in the league. Everyone else supplements those superstars with other less flashy but no-less-necessary skills.
A team that drafts Tatum is drafting him on the belief that he can routinely make All-NBA teams, because otherwise, he might turn into the type of player who puts up 22 points per night on 33-win teams. Not to name names, but someone whose name rhymes with Goody Ray comes to mind.
Tatum is a very good athlete, but not in the class with the elite at his position. Fairly or unfairly, he will be measured against LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Gordon Hayward, and countless other incredible players with an otherworldly combination of size, skill, strength, and athleticism.
He projects to be able to defend well across multiple positions, but can he do it for 35 minutes per night over 82 games against the best in the world? Can he improve as a playmaker, or is he going to be the type of player who prefers to isolate and take his man one on one?
What else can he do?
On a scale from 1-10, concerns about Tatum’s versatility and non-scoring attributes rates at a 7.5.
Many scouts and talent evaluators love to nitpick players who come out of the Duke system. Perhaps it’s because the non-Durham basketball public instinctively roots against Duke, or perhaps it’s a legitimate criticism of such an elite basketball program that has a slightly underwhelming record of NBA success stories, but it’s a question that will arise during Tatum’s pre-draft scouting.
Personally, I believe Tatum showed everything he needed to show at Duke. For a player who came in with such hype as an offensive machine, Tatum delivered the goods. Once he finally made his debut in December, Tatum ripped off an incredible string of double-digit scoring outings, putting up points against any and all levels of competition. His focus never wavers and his effort never wanes — he gets buckets.
Perhaps most impressive about Tatum’s freshman campaign was that consistency. It underscored a level of maturity that many teenagers simply haven’t developed. Tatum puts in work every time he laces up his sneakers. It will serve him well at the next level.
On a scale from 1-10, Tatum’s time at Duke rates at a 7.
Ideal NBA Ecosystem
Tatum’s best bet is to end up with a team that needs a bucket-getter. He will spend most of his rookie season adjusting to the NBA’s speed and athleticism, but in order for him to retain his confidence, he needs a spot that will allow him enough touches to do what he does best — score.
He will have tough nights, inefficient nights, even some terrible nights. But the worst thing for Tatum will be nights where he doesn’t get any shots up, either because he’s playing for a coach trying to save his job, or he’s playing behind a veteran who soaks up a lot of minutes/possessions.
Tatum needs a spot where he can be free to struggle. It’s the only way the rest of his game will catch up to his scoring ability. Many mock drafts have him going to Sacramento, which will be OK as long as rhymes-with-Goody-Ray heads elsewhere in free agency. Phoenix would be interesting, as Tatum is essentially a rich-man’s TJ Warren. Philadelphia makes some sense, as they need anyone who can get buckets, but the Sixers already have a frontcourt crowded with hybrid forwards. Ditto Orlando.
Perhaps the New York Knicks finally part ways with Anthony and Tatum can attempt to fulfill those comparisons.
It’s possible Tatum is the type of player who doesn’t reach his ceiling with the team that drafts him. My gut tells me that Tatum evolves into a well-rounded scoring forward who can become a high-level starter on a playoff team, but will be best served as that team’s second- or third-best player. The teams drafting around Tatum’s range have struggled to put that kind of roster together — obviously. Otherwise they wouldn’t always be drafting here.
On a scale from 1-10, Tatum’s fit-dependent success rates at a 9.