While few mock draft creators would dare have Duke freshman Jayson Tatum as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, he just might be atop some executives’ boards.
Anthony Bennett came out of nowhere to go first in the 2013 draft, after all. Bennett, who was cut by a Turkish club just this week, also turned out to be a terrible whiff by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
None of that is to say Tatum will be anywhere near the draft bust as Bennett. It’s only to say his stock as a tweener forward is as volatile as anyone’s in the otherwise cut-and-dry tier of top players in this class.
Tatum at least has his NBA role spelled out before draft night. The 6-foot-8, 205-pound forward with a 6-foot-11 wingspan leans on his effective isolation game. Immediately, he will be able to play as a hybrid forward. Think Carmelo Anthony (the older version), Rudy Gay or Marcus Morris, who operate as a face-up scorers in the high post.
His jabs, shoulder shakes and quick one- or two-dribble moves give him the ability to wiggle loose for open shots.
Tatum proved capable extended out to the three-point line — he shot 34 percent as a freshman at Duke — though he was at his best on catch-and-shoot jumpers, hitting 41 percent of such threes, according to Synergy Sports.
While the fluidity to Tatum’s midrange game shined, it remains uncertain how his skills will translate against NBA small forwards rather than the power forwards he matched up against in college.
An average to above average athlete, Tatum’s ceiling will be defined by how his off-the-dribble attacking of the basket can develop in the NBA.
Efficiency and shot selection comparisons on his own team bear out many of the concerns.
Per Hoop-Math.com, Tatum’s midrange-heavy game made him a much less efficient scorer than Duke’s leading shot-taker Luke Kennard (63 percent to 57 percent in True Shooting Percentage).
Tatum finished at the rim at nearly the same rate as the less athletic Kennard, shot nearly 10-percent worse on two-point jumpers and got to the foul line at the same rate despite taking 33 percent of his shots at the rim to Kennard’s 18 percent.
The inability to draw fouls might be because Tatum has few counters once his drives or pull-ups are cut off, leading him to awkward-looking attempts at the rim or contested midrange jumpers. Making matters more difficult, he’s a better midrange shooting going left, to his weaker hand. Granted, his stepback going left is quite effective.
A small-ball power forward in college, Tatum will be tested as a small forward in a league because making plays off the dribble isn’t his forte. That said, he had flashes of being an above-average passer — Tatum averaged 2.1 assists per game — though those came in between bouts of tunnel-vision in isolation situations.
The good news in that regard is that Tatum has the physical tools and build to fill out, add weight and perhaps grow into a smaller power forward.
But his college tape shows room to develop when it comes to putting in the effort as a defender and rebounder.
A lack of physicality and sporadic losses of focus haven’t helped his stock. Tatum’s film includes too many blow-bys by guards and too many times he handed a bigger opponent post position.
In terms of what Tatum becomes, it’s his personality that can convince a team he has star potential.
Tatum shot 50 percent overall and 34 percent from three to go with 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game at Duke. He fit in well and impacted the game with more than his scoring on a Blue Devils team with a plethora of other offensive options.
Tatum is a known competitor, but it will be on the team that drafts him to push the right buttons.
They’ll need to determine whether he can tweak his shot selection to be less iso-heavy and become an every-possession defender.
From the Suns’ perspective, does he offer any more upside than the guy they already have manning the small forward spot in T.J. Warren?
Warren is another midrange scorer who showed defensive and rebounding potential this year. Is Tatum capable of growing into a more efficient scorer? At this point, it appears Warren’s 15-foot-and-in floater game is more effective than a player who could mostly take contested fadeaway jumpers.
Defensively, Tatum’s on-and-off effort included flashes of solid perimeter defense when he was tuned in. Like Warren was coming out of North Carolina State, whether he can become a competent defender is a red flag that could keep him on the draft board longer than he’d like.
Among the forwards projected atop the draft — Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac included — Tatum has the lowest floor without much evidence of elite glue-guy potential. In other words, if his scoring doesn’t translate well, that makes him the biggest risk. But if he does maintain his ability as an above-average scorer and develops habits that build on his natural abilities, he has the potential to become a multi-tool player.
There are just a lot of “ifs” there, more than arguably a handful of others in this draft.