In recent weeks, Jayson Tatum has been on a tear. He has been one of the most impressive players in the NBA recently and I will be the first to admit that I did not see this coming. Before the start of the NBA season, BS Scouting listed our top 22 players under the age of 22 (https://bsscouting.com/2019/10/29/nbas-top-22-and-under-list/). On our list, he was #10 as shown and is behind players like Jamaal Murray, Lauri Markkannen, and Marvin Bagley. It only seems fair to start at the beginning though and how Tatum has transformed throughout the years.
Who was Jayson Tatum as a draft prospect?
Jayson Tatum attended Duke like many of the top coveted NBA prospects and didn’t disappoint. He was one of the primary scorers and averaged 16.8 PPG along with 7.3 rebounds on a team that won 29 games. Tatum’s best strength was isolation scoring and didn’t require much to create his shot as he had phenomenal footwork especially for an 18-year-old. The problem had more to do with mindset than his game. He was more of a “Me” guy than a “we guy.” He was also most comfortable as a mid-range shooter. Tatum also wasn’t going to get in a defensive stance often which made him a poor perimeter defender. While he would never admit this, a part of him would be happier in a game he scored 30 and loss rather than a game he scored 10 and won. Everything just mentioned makes him sound like a “Carmelo Anthony” type of player and that was my knock on him. Carmelo is a tremendous talent and will be a Hall of Famer one day, but there is a reason why he never made it to an NBA finals. With this in mind along with the evolution of the 3 point shot, that’s where the doubt set in when looking at Tatum as a prospect.
For 2 years, he sure put up great numbers, but it still didn’t change my opinion of him. His play didn’t start to change until this season.
The Analytics Behind the Breakout Year
While it was obvious Tatum was going to be better after the divorce with Kyrie Irving, it still wasn’t evident he was going to become this. The opportunity has been a large factor in his emergence, but what’s happened between the ears is what has transformed his game to another level. Like mentioned previously, he was most comfortable playing in the mid-range. Now it’s ridiculous to ignore the mid-range like James Harden does, but there is too much analytics out there to know that it just isn’t efficient to play through the mid-range. Tatum has seemed to grasp that as only 8.5% of his field-goal attempts are coming between 16 ft to the 3 point line as opposed to an average of 17.9% of his shots coming from that distance in his first 2 seasons on average. He has learned to become more comfortable shooting from 3 as 37.7% of his FGA are coming from 3, while only an average of 29.5% of his FGA came from behind the arc in his first 2 seasons.
Showing Signs of a 2-Way Player
Jayson Tatum has decent size for a SF at 6’8 with a 6’11 wingspan. I had questions if even when he wanted, how would he be defending other elite wings. Well, on February 13th, Jayson Tatum had a remarkable defensive game against Kawhi Leonard and made him uncomfortable. While this only happened 1 game, there are signs that point to him improving on this end of the floor. First of all, defense is about mindset and Tatum has bought into that this year. Tatum has also displayed impressive instincts that show he has a great understanding of the game. The combination of those things along with his natural athleticism suggests he will not be a liability and can be trusted to help his team get stops in key moments of a game.
The Area of his Game We Never Saw Coming
The most surprising thing he has shown this year is how good of a dribbler he is. Jayson Tatum’s handles are like a point forwards. He is very tight and decisive in his handles, and that has really allowed him to create his shot at an even higher rate. This has also helped with his ability to drive by his man as he is averaging 8.9 PPG in the paint and 4.6 free throw attempts per game (Both career highs). Tatum has some of the best handles among all wings in the NBA and that is something he either never showed at Duke or didn’t have. Either way, he certainly has that ability now.
The Right Coach
While the NBA might be considered a “Players League,” the coach still matters and Tatum has found the perfect marriage. Brad Stevens is one of the most brilliant coaches in the game, but the knock-on him was that stars don’t respect him. A coach and a player don’t have to be best friends for it to work, but there has to be a level of respect and these 2 have that. Jayson Tatum has learned to play efficiently and buy-in defensively; two things that are hard to get many NBA players to do and Stevens deserves a lot of credit for this. Tatum always had the talent, but Brad Stevens has elevated him to a whole nother level.
The Future Implications
The one thing defenses are going to start to do in the near future is throw double teams at him and force him to be a playmaker. So far this year, Tatum has struggled when defenses do this. While playmaking has never been a strong part of Tatum’s game, he can become serviceable enough to exploit double team’s. Luckily for him, It’s so hard to double team someone on the perimeter in today’s game with all the shooting and spacing there is so this isn’t a long-term problem.
Jayson Tatum has an innate ability to score and that will never change. With all the other elements of his game coming together, he is going to be a top 5-10 player in this league for the next decade and can be the best player in the whole Eastern Conference outside of Giannis in select years. This year has been the start of something beautiful, and Boston has the right structure in place to make it last. Coming into the NBA, Tatum had what it took to have a successful statistical career, but now he has the opportunity to do something even greater. Jayson Tatum can be a great player with championships to his name as long as the mindset stays.
Article Written By Bradley Patten
Stats provided by Basketball Reference (https://www.basketball-reference.com/players/t/tatumja01.html) and NBA.com (https://stats.nba.com/player/1628369/)
Photo Credit to Maddie Meyer at Getty Images (https://www.zimbio.com/photos/Jayson+Tatum/Milwaukee+Bucks+Vs+Boston+Celtics+Game+Five/dgTnSJZtKWM)