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Future Sixers: Jayson Tatum’s Rounded Game Would Provide Intriguing Upside Next to Simmons

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

I was very wrong about Jayson Tatum.

His scouting report did not portend great success in the NBA: A mid-range scorer who specialized in isolation situations, played lackadaisical defense, and didn’t create for teammates is the type of player who is easily overrated by scouts. There is no doubt that DeMar DeRozan is an incredibly skilled basketball player, but there are wide-ranging disagreements about how much he actually helps Toronto win. A Top 5 pick in DeRozan’s mold was something to be very concerned about as a Sixers’ fan.

The reality has been nearly the opposite: Tatum is a smart basketball player who excels on the defensive end and struggles to score efficiently against the best defenders. While his outside shot is still a work in progress, he has been a willing shooter from distance (5 3PA per 40 minutes) and has enough positive shooting indicators to believe he’ll be a passable shooter from deep.

This shows the outlines of a wholly different player. As a defender who is probable to shoot by the time he reaches his prime, Tatum provides two of the most important the Sixers needs on their roster. Add in some secondary handling potential, and Tatum could be one of the rarest commodities in the NBA: A two-way wing who can space the floor and put the ball on the floor.

The biggest surprise in Tatum’s game has been on the defensive end, where he, unfairly, had a reputation for nonchalance, likely propagated through his low-effort, low-intensity practices before the Hoop Summit. Since arriving at Duke, however, he has been an excellent defender. Among wing players with combined steal and block rates above 4%, a DBPM above 3, and whose DRtg’s on Sports-Reference are more than 1 point better than their respective teams’ DRtg’s, Tatum appears to be among the very best defenders.

It’s important to note that Tatum has played the fewest games by a decent margin, and that his outlier statistics have regressed since ACC play began and are likely to continue regressing. Still, placing second across all of these metrics is an incredibly impressive achievement for Tatum, and it’s evident by the eye test that these numbers, while perhaps inflated, are correct in communicating that he is a fundamentally strong defender.

Unlike Josh Jackson, Tatum doesn’t overwhelm opposing players with his athleticism and intensity. His defensive excellence is more cerebral— based on positioning and anticipation rather than unrelenting pressure. Tatum lacks top-tier athleticism, but he’s still got excellent lateral agility for a player his size, and he switches effortlessly onto perimeter players in Duke’s system.

His strengths are evident here, where he stops the ball-handler at the top of the key, navigates screens, prevents an easy drive to the middle, and then grabs a contested defensive rebound. He’s aware of his surroundings, communicating with his teammates, and soundly in position throughout.

Here again, you can see how comfortable he is moving his feet in space and forcing the ball handler to spaces he doesn’t want to go

While he is mobile and has posted impressive numbers this year, I’m hesitant to expect elite defense from Tatum. He simply lacks the physical tools to be an All-Defense force at the next level. You can see this somewhat in the events he does create: He’ll often get flat-footed (or nearly flat-footed) blocks due more to his opponents’ weaknesses and his size than to his athleticism.

That’s a great defensive play that counts the same as any other blocked shot. In terms of its translation to the NBA, I’m slightly skeptical he’ll be as impactful as he is in college. I fully expect him to be an above average defender who makes a real difference there, but expecting elite translation on that end may be a step too far given Tatum’s athletic limitations.

This shows up on the offensive end as well, where Tatum has, surprisingly, been less effective than advertised. Tatum was lauded coming into this season for his arsenal of moves and preternatural footwork in the mid-post, where he had dominated high school and AAU competition for years. To be sure, his skills remain impressive, but his troubles finishing against length have overshadowed his footwork.

Tatum’s problems are evident first in his efficiency numbers, which have bounced around this year, but have generally remained below average. Through 9 games, his true shooting percentage of 55.6% places him in the 30th percentile among all wings. This is mitigated somewhat by his high usage, but his efficiency is bolstered by his impressive free throw percentage. He has been exposed as a suspect finisher against Jackson at the lower levels, longer big men in college, and most recently, against Jonathan Isaac and Florida State’s mammoth frontcourt this week.

Even while he’s recovering on a broken play and off-balance, Jarquez Smith is able to frustrate Tatum into tossing up an air-ball from close range. This isn’t out of the ordinary; Tatum simply doesn’t have the vertical explosion or the length to create easy finishes at the hoop. Even when he has a clear physical advantage against lesser athletes, he needs to contort awkwardly to find a clean look at the hoop.

To be clear, there’s a lot to like about this possession. He showcased an in-out dribble with his off-hand, attacked the basket when he saw space, and showed the body control to convert a difficult shot. Still, given the obvious advantages he possessed in this scenario, the shot should have been easier to create.

In that respect, Tatum will need to model parts of his game off of Gordon Hayward and other similar players moving forward (H/T JZ Mazlish—@jzmazlish— for the comp). Hayward has shown that it’s possible to be a wonderful scorer at the wing even with average length and athleticism, but he relies on a grab bag of up-fakes, floaters, and exquisite touch to do so. Tatum will have to grow as a scorer to reach that level, although it’s certainly attainable. After all, he’s already got moves like this comfortably in his back pocket.

Another place where Tatum could model future growth off of Hayward’s game is in improving his vision. He is certainly not a non-passer at this point in his game, but he also falls quite a bit short of Jackson’s excellence in that regard. With an assist rate at 12.9%, Tatum is a perfectly average passer. However, when adjusted for his obscene usage rate, Tatum’s passing looks a bit less promising. His AST:USG ratio of 0.44 places him in the 25th percentile among wing players. This has been obvious at times when he has passed on a simple play in favor of a worse one.

That said, Tatum is certainly not hopeless on that end. While he has struggled to finish at the hoop, his excellent footwork and handle have allowed him to probe the paint regularly, and he’ll often culminate those possessions in which he finds the rim walled off with a smart kick to a shooter on the wing.

The trick for Tatum may be increasing the play types in which he looks for teammates. In post-ups and isolations, he could stand to look for plays like this more regularly.

Luckily, Tatum’s foundation as a strong defender places less of a premium on his offensive creation abilities. Even as a non-creator, his defense would ensure basic utility in the league, and as he hones his skills more, there is a strong chance that he becomes a two-way stud who can function in a secondary or tertiary playmaking role on offense. While 3-point shooting has been a concern in the past, he has shown comfort on long jumpers, shoots an outstanding 86.5% on free throws, and has been a non-abysmal 31% on 50 3PA’s this year. He has no obvious kinks in his shooting form and knocked down some confident treys against Florida State.

As a wing pairing with either Ben Simmons or Robert Covington, Tatum could be an outstanding addition to this Sixers’ team. Even better, it looks like Colangelo might have more than one opportunity to add him to the team. That’s good news for the Sixers.

Future Sixers Point Guard Rankings:

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, so I’ll do my real rankings again with a short blurb as to why I think what I do. Disagreements and berating welcome as always.

1. Markelle Fultz, Washington

Fultz is the best player in the draft, one of the youngest players in the draft, and the obvious top pick. His shooting would make him a great fit on any team, and his playmaking would be a fantastic complement to Ben Simmons’. If the Sixers somehow manage to win the lottery again, he should be the guy.

2. Dennis Smith Jr., NC State

Smith is the only player outside of Fultz in this draft that can become a primary initiator for a championship team, in my opinion. Given his improved shooting over the last month and an uptick in defensive effort, he’s second on my board and second in my point guard power rankings.

3. Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg

I prefer Ntilikina to Ball for a few reasons. First, he’s an outstanding perimeter defender, while Ball is average at best. Second, while both project to struggle as creators in the halfcourt, Ntilikina has demonstrated more shake to my eye, and thus I find him more likely to grown into a plus creator there. And lastly, he’s a full 9 months younger than Ball, which also increases that likelihood. That’s just enough of an edge to prefer him for me, although it’s certainly close.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA

The obvious strength that Ball has over Ntilikina is in his vision and BBIQ. If he can defend the point of attack better than I think, this could be a very close call.

5. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State

Evans is certainly an NBA player and could be a really nice fit next to Simmons. The question is whether he’ll top out as a backup, or whether he’s well-rounded enough to be an above average starter. For now, he slots clearly behind Ball and Ntilikina.

6. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

It’ll take an awful lot for me to move Fox out of this spot. As a complete non-shooter (his FT% regression makes it even more clear) and merely good athlete, he simply doesn’t have any avenues to playing off-ball or working as a high-level initiator. He’ll be in the league a long time, but he won’t start for any top teams.

7. Edmond Sumner, Xavier

I watched Sumner shoot 3-15 from the field live on Tuesday night, and let me tell you, it was ugly. The guy doesn’t have natural PG instincts, can’t score from distance, and is a minus finisher at the rim.

Games to Watch:

Duke (7) vs. Louisville (14), 12:00 EST, KFC YUM! Center, ESPN
Louisville is a bad matchup for Duke, and this could be an ugly game. Pitino always runs out a ton of length and athleticism, and Donovan Mitchell has been a terror this year. This will be a good game to watch Tatum to see how he handles the Cardinals’ length.
Prospects to watch: Tatum, Harry Giles, Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen (Duke), Mitchell, Deng Adel (Louisville)

Kansas (2) vs. Oklahoma State, 2:00 EST, Allen Fieldhouse, ESPN2
This is a great opportunity to watch Jawun Evans against Josh Jackson as the Big 12 kicks into gear. OSU has been largely a one-man show, but he’s done it on the big stage against some of the best teams in the nation already. If he shows out here, scouts’ reticence to move him up draft boards will be strange.
Prospects to watch: Josh Jackson, Devonte Graham, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Kansas), Jawun Evans (Oklahoma State)

Florida State (9) vs. North Carolina (11), 2:00 EST, Dean Smith Center, ESPN
Fresh off a shellacking of the Blue Devils, Jonathan Isaac and FSU travel down Tobacco Road to face the other North Carolina juggernaut. This will be another good test for the future lottery pick.
Prospects to watch: Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes (Florida State), Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina)

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