Jayson Tatum missed the first month of the season due to a foot strain and his return was supposed to make Duke a juggernaut. But as is often the case in basketball, once you change one factor, the entire equation changes. That fluid drive-and-kick attack from earlier in the season has been altered to incorporate Tatum’s slower-developing style of play.
This occurrence has led to some concerns over whether the nature of his game is too individualistic to succeed in the ball movement era.
Tatum remains, nonetheless, highly thought of due to his overall skill package. Draft Express currently ranks him sixth in its 2017 board.
Tatum’s most impressive development so far has been his defense. When I profiled him in August, I wrote of him as a “whatever” defender; someone who puts in decent effort but didn’t make much of an impact.
So far, I’ve been proven wrong. Tatum is showing himself to be a very versatile defender, currently posting the lowest defensive rating on the team – according to basketball-reference. Duke has switched very aggressively over the last couple of games against Elon and Virginia Tech and he has been a plausible asset picking up smaller players at the top of their set defense.
He can bend his knees to get low in a stance and has worked hard to move his feet. These opponents have not stressed him into ball-screens and his six-foot-eight, 204-pound frame suggests he should struggle against those but Tatum has shown adequate lateral quickness to stay in front in isolation and has used his reach (six-foot-11 wingspan) to pick the pockets of these opponents, as he’s averaged 2.3 steals per 40 minutes.
Tatum stays in a stance off the ball and remains focused, cutting off a couple backdoor cut attempts in impressive fashion for someone his age. He’s been attentive to his rotation responsibilities and made plays at the basket. Tatum is not an explosive leaper but has used his eight-foot-10 standing reach to contribute in rim protection, as he’s averaged 2.5 blocks per 40 minutes and collected 21% of opponents’ misses when he’s been on the floor.
BELOW THE FOUL LINE
In his first few games back, specifically against Florida and UNLV, Tatum was used a pure old school power forward; with all of his offense coming below the foul line – at the elbows and in the low post. And in these areas, he excels.
Tatum has a well developed short-range game for an 18-year-old. He can get a seal against just about anyone in his age group and has shown a lot of patience operating with his back to the basket. His footwork is pretty fluid and the touch in his shot is excellent. Tatum often looks for a turnaround jumper but can also counter with a hook over the defender’s left shoulder.
He can get by his man on short straight line drives from the elbow to the goal and finish through contact. Tatum is not an explosive leaper out of one foot and hasn’t yet shown the ability to adjust his body in the air for reverse finishes around length like he did in high school but hasn’t had much trouble producing at the basket at the collegiate level either. According to hoop-math, he’s converted 16 of his 27 shots at the rim and averaged seven foul shots per 40 minutes.
As a corner shooter, Tatum is a credible threat. His release is not lightning quick but he’s proven able to get his shot off before the closeout, though that’s something he’ll obviously need to continue working on since those closeouts are a lot faster in the pros.
ABOVE THE FOUL LINE
In the last couple of games, Tatum has played more of a perimeter-oriented game. Against Elon, Duke involved him some more in their drive-and-kick sequences and even used him as a screener on a couple of pick-and-pops. Then midway through that game and throughout the entire game against Virginia Tech, Tatum assumed more ball-handling responsibility due to Grayson Allen’s absence. He took 36 shots in these last two appearances, which boosted his usage rate up to 29% – a team high.
Tatum can’t get by his man on speed any better than he did high school and relies on his dribble moves (crossover, in-and-out dribble, spin) to get separation to launch from mid-range in isolation. He was able to make these tough shots in the past but has been cold so far, missing 22 of his 31 two-point jumpers.
Tatum also did better in lower levels creating out of the pick-and-roll but that’s yet to be seen at Duke. When he’s gotten a ball-screen, Tatum has mostly looked to take step-in three-pointers instead of seeking for opportunities to penetrate off the dribble, though it’s fair to point Duke’s spacing wasn’t as great against Virginia Tech with Allen out and Matt Jones going through a cold streak.
Nonetheless, he’s got just one unassisted make from beyond the arc so far and his 12.5% assist-rate is mostly a result of Duke’s ecosystem, where every extra pass around the horn can become an assist opportunity, rather than any real substance he’s created for others out of dribble penetration.
 Iffy shot selection has tanked his three-point percentage to .300.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara