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Future Sixers: Jayson Tatum Deserves Consideration at #3

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NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-South Carolina vs Duke Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In the few days since the draft lottery, I’ve been surprised by how quickly Sixers’ fans have coalesced around Josh Jackson as the consensus choice for the 3rd overall selection. Jackson is an exciting player that I’ve had in the Top 3 of my personal big board all season, and is certainly one of the players I would consider using the Sixers’ pick on. However, he presents distinct fit problems with Simmons, and his shot may be in worse shape than most proponents suggest.

I’ll do an in-depth profile of Jackson before the draft. He may wind up as my preference for the Sixers to take at 3. But he isn’t overwhelmingly so, and by fixating on him as the team’s choice, we do ourselves a disservice by missing details on other players. I’d like to spend some time talking about other suitors for the 3rd pick before returning to Jackson. Starting with Jayson Tatum.

As with Lonzo Ball, I wrote about Tatum earlier in the season. You can read that report here. As with Ball, the scouting holds up, even though the numbers have shifted (and usually regressed). The Cliffs Notes version:

  1. Tatum has a polished arsenal of offensive moves, but doesn’t always capitalize on them due to some physical limitations.
  2. Tatum has limitations as a passer, but has demonstrated enough of a capacity to engender optimism for his growth there.
  3. Tatum is an underrated defender who is unlikely to be a lockdown player, but was also very good as a freshman at Duke.

There are a few unflattering narratives about Tatum that have been floating around, and I think they are largely unfair to him. I’d like to talk about them and then situate my own expectations of how he might fit into the Sixers’ future plans.

The most common criticism of Tatum is that he’s an anachronism whose proclivities lend themselves to inefficient basketball, and that he’ll be unable to adjust to more fluid, dynamic styles espoused by NBA teams. This overstates the extent to which Tatum relied on midrange shots, the extent to which he isolated, and the probability that he’ll be unable to shoot effectively in the NBA. Let’s tackle these in reverse order.

Narrative 1: Tatum Hasn’t Shot Well From Distance & Is Unlikely to Do So in the NBA

A common refrain among Tatum-detractors has been that Tatum has not displayed comfort in extending his range beyond the 3-point line. This is a relic from Tatum’s high school days, where he was hesitant to step outside of the 2-point area. It’s a prior that should be updated based on his play at Duke.

While the criticism that Tatum rarely shot 3’s was accurate during his time at Chaminade Prep, since moving to Durham, he has been both willing and competent hoisting from distance. He attempted 4.8 3-pointers per 40 minutes this year, a perfectly reasonable rate that doesn’t point to an outstanding deficiency. In fact, out of 32 wings standing 6’7 or taller drafted since 2014 (or expected to be drafted this year), Tatum fits perfectly into the middle of the pack, placing 15th. He attempted 3-pointers more regularly than other top picks Andrew Wiggins, Jaylen Brown, and Jabari Parker. He also attempted 3’s more regularly than Jonathan Isaac, who many presume to shoot more efficiently than Tatum will.

In this season at Duke, 32.1% of his shots were from 3, a perfectly reasonable number. If you compare his shot distribution to that of some of the best forwards in the NBA, you’ll find that he is on the higher end of 3-point attempts.

(Two notes on this table: The college 3FGA/40 uses only the freshman seasons from each player. The NBA players’ midrange FGAs only include from 10-feet to the 3-point line. Tatum’s includes any shot outside of 3-feet, and is therefore more infrequent than it appears in this table.)

This does not mean that Tatum will become as good (or bad) as any of these players. There is also uncertainty about how players’ shot selections may change as they move from one level of basketball to the next. But it does show that his shot selection is not unduly skewed towards the midrange, while also demonstrating that he showed as much of a willingness to shoot from distance at a young age as most of these players.

While Tatum may have been willing to shoot 3’s, he did not connect on them at a high rate. Still, he shot a respectable enough 34.2%, which in no way should delineate him as a non-shooter. There have been plenty of players who went on to become good to elite shooters in the NBA who shot worse from distance in their age-18 season. In fact, 3-point shooting FG% has always been one of the trickier indicators of NBA success— shooting from distance is a notoriously noisy statistic that requires far more attempts to stabilize the data than players have an opportunity to take in their short times in college.

Because of that, we often look to free throw shooting to determine the likelihood that a player will develop into a great shooter. In the last two years, Tatum has shown himself to be an elite free throw shooter.

As a freshman at Duke, Tatum shot 84.9% from the line on 139 attempts. According to Sports-Reference, that is the 5th highest mark for any freshman non-guard with more than 100 attempts since 1992-92. He was even better as a high school senior, where he shot 88.2% on 212 attempts in EYBL play. That means that, combining his Age 17 & 18 seasons, Tatum has converted 86.9% of his free throw attempts on a sample of 350 shots.

History shows us that elite free throw shooting at a young age combined with a mere willingness to attempt 3-pointers has led to success spacing the floor in the NBA. Since 1992-93, there have been 20 players who shot better than 83% from the free throw line and attempted more than 60 3-pointers as freshmen who went on to play minutes in the NBA. 75% of those players have gone on to shoot 35% or better from 3 in their NBA careers. (Lauri Markkanen and Melo Trimble are an additional two players who are expected to be drafted this year and also reached those benchmarks.)

The 5 players who have failed to reach that benchmark have also failed to accumulate a large shooting sample. Hummel, Wolters, and Ahearn are unlikely to ever get that chance for reasons unrelated to their shooting, while Myles Turner and Tyus Jones are largely expected to improve from 3 as their careers continue.

This suggests to me that the null hypothesis for Tatum’s shooting shouldn’t be, “He’s unlikely to shoot,” but should instead be, “He’s likely to shoot.”

I’m not a shot doctor, and my shot analysis essentially consists of: “Does it look wonky?” So I’ll defer to better minds than mine when discussing Tatum’s form and execution. That said, he looks smooth and confident to me, with nothing overtly “off” about his shot.

If Tatum can shoot effectively at the next level, it will unlock both on- and off-ball value. The threat of the 3-point shot will enable him to harness his first-step and tap into his cache of moves. It will also make him valuable off the ball.

Narrative 2: Tatum lives in the midrange, and is an iso-scorer.

Yes, Tatum does use a larger share of possessions for isolation than many prospects. However, that does not make him either incapable of playing different styles or incompatible with the modern game.

Tatum’s isolation style jumps off the screen when you watch him. Any highlight compilation will feature one or two pinch post-ups or an isolation drive. That many of these plays result in long 2’s has garnered him (wrongful) comparisons to Carmelo Anthony and DeMar DeRozan.

But this also overstates the impact his style has on a game overall. According to Synergy, Tatum used 23.2% of his finishing possessions for isolations (117 total). This puts him very high among college athletes— for instance Josh Jackson only used 46 isolations, 7.8% of his finishing possessions. However, it is still a remarkably small number of plays given the length of a college basketball season.

Tatum’s usage rate was 26.2% this year. If 23% of his usage was reserved for isolations, that comes to only 6.1% of Duke’s possessions while he was in the game, which is fewer than 4 possessions per game. In a smaller role in the NBA, those possessions will shrink further to potentially only 1 or 2 per game. An occasional isolation play is hardly a ball-stopping, offense detonating disaster, and Tatum doesn’t project to destroy motion offenses because he played an iso-heavy style in college.

Moreover, there have been plenty of players who shouldered heavy usage, isolation roles in college who then adjusted to playing more of an off-ball role in the NBA. Gerald Henderson, Klay Thompson, and Luke Babbitt(!!) all used more possessions for isolation in college, and no one would dream about labeling them isolation players now.

Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant may be great examples of how being iso-heavy in college does not necessarily lead to iso-dependency in the NBA. Both were high usage isolation players in college (Durant used an equal percentage of possessions as Tatum did). Golden State avoids isolation even when they might exploit mismatches, preferring player motion, intricate screening, and ball movement to capitalize on them. This is one of the most sophisticated offenses in the NBA, and both players are key contributors to its success despite their college playing style. There is no reason why the same should not be true of Tatum.

For Tatum to tap into his ceiling outcome, the development of an isolation scoring and midrange game is a necessity. To that end, his proclivities are a feature, not a bug; they simply move him further along the development curve of that particular skill. Take a look at that first chart again. Even the best wing creators in the NBA still use close to a third of their field goal attempts on long 2’s. That’s because, when the shot clock is winding down and the team needs to take a shot, somebody has to create a decent look. Tatum already has an overdeveloped skillset for those situations.

Besides, the idea that he “lives in the midrange” overstates the frequency with which he shoots there. Markelle Fultz (9.0), De’Aaron Fox (6.1), Malik Monk (6.0), Luke Kennard (5.9), and Josh Jackson (5.8) all attempted more midrange FG’s per 40 minutes than Tatum (5.3) did this year. Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell, both #2 picks in the last two drafts, also attempted more midrange shots per 40 minutes. All of these players except for Monk were more frequent attempting these shots as a percentage of their overall FGAs (e.g. controlling for usage) than Tatum did, as well.

Tatum was also impressive at generating field goal attempts at the rim. According to Hoop-Math, he created 3.7 unassisted attempts per 40 minutes, and 2.4 halfcourt attempts per 40 minutes. Both place him above the 75th percentile. This is a side of his game that is often ignored in favor of focusing on his midrange attempts— he can get to the rim frequently, and that is one of the most useful skills in the NBA.

You can see how successful he has been at creating high quality attempts by comparing his unassisted rim attempts to other recent wing prospects.

The flip side of the coin of this particular skill has been his relative struggles at finishing there. Tatum shot only 62% on rim field goal attempts, which places him in the 40th percentile of wing finishers. This points to his lack of touch and athleticism— he isn’t able to score over or through big defenders, and he lacks the touch to make up for it. Still, it is a wholly different criticism from the myth that he lives in the midrange, and his rim creation paints his shot distribution in a much more flattering light.

Narrative 3: Tatum is a poor passer who had more turnovers than assists, so he has a low IQ.

Let’s address the assist-to-turnover ratio first, because it is mentioned in nearly all Tatum scouting reports. Yes, Tatum had more turnovers than assists this year. No, I am not going to tell you that something which is bad is #actually good. It is absolutely correct that through history, poor AST:TO ratios have been useful in finding high usage college stars who might not experience the same level of success in the NBA.

But, as with any skill, it should be evaluated on a spectrum. Too often we look at 1-to-1 ratios as the turning point between when a player is good versus when a player is bad, when there are enormous differences between players on all different points of the spectrum. Marvin Williams’ freshman AST:TO of 0.45 is not analogous to Tatum’s 0.82, yet they’re lumped together under the same generic umbrella of “worse than 1-to-1.”

Among combo forward prospects, Tatum’s freshman ratio puts him right around average. There are a whole host of players who went on to mixed NBA creation success with ratios below 1.

Obviously, some of these players improved and some of these players declined. The point is not to show that Tatum is likely to improve, but that he has non-blackhole equity. Hayward, Pierce, George, Johnson, and Kawhi have all gone on to become secondary creators or better. Gay, Maggette, Stackhouse, and ‘Toine slid back into gunner roles. As with any player, there is a range of possible outcomes. For some reason, most discussion seems to focus on Tatum’s negative ones, rather than his positive.

The same is true of Tatum’s passing. In raw terms, his AST% of 12.2 is slightly below average for wings. Adjusting for usage drops him down lower. But when comparing him to historical players, he again comes out in the middle of the pack for small forwards. Sports-Reference’s lack of advanced statistics before 2010 forces us to rely on per 40’s, which are less uniform than per possession statistics. But by this measure Tatum was more than respectable, with his 2.6 assists per 40 minutes placing him around the 68th percentile for small forwards.

Watching the tape, it’s clear that Tatum has multiple passing reads in his arsenal. He can make quick decisions in transition:

He can make creative passes after driving:

And he can make basic pick and roll reads, displaying patience and comfort:

Certainly, he can improve his decision making and expand his reads. But he has shown a base level of competency that has been expanded into large NBA roles in the past. As with AST:TO, it’s possible that he’ll regress into becoming a tunnel vision player against higher level athletes in the NBA. But that’s not what he was at Duke, and focusing on that outcome ignores the outcomes in which he improves his passing and decision making ability.

Narrative 4: Tatum is a one-way player.

This simply is not true. Tatum was a well-above average defender at Duke, and he projects to remain useful on defense in the NBA. He’s a strong positional defender, whose heady play resulted in frequent blocks and steals. His DBPM of 4.1 placed him in the 80th percentile of all freshman wing defenders.

There are legitimate concerns about how his production will translate. He struggled containing smaller players in space, and while his lateral agility is adequate, he did not excel at changing directions. This means it is likely that he will not be as impactful in the NBA as he was in college, but it also doesn’t mean he’ll be bad on defense. As with other skills, defense isn’t a binary construction in which players are either good or bad.

Even if Tatum isn’t a knockout defender or if he struggles with certain assignments, there is value in a cerebral player who knows positioning, understands schemes, and doesn’t get lost. If he can use his length to continue creating more steals and blocks than a player with his tools would be expected to, he’d be a welcome addition to any defensive lineups. If he were the weak link in a lineup featuring Covington, Simmons, and Embiid, the Sixers would be incredibly well fortified.

Narrative 5: Tatum isn’t elite at anything.

This is correct. Tatum is not elite at anything (other than free throw shooting). But this narrative dismisses the value of being very good at nearly every basketball skill. It also treats his demonstrable skills as being bad, as opposed to good. Take, for instance, some NBA comparisons most frequently cited when thinking about Tatum’s future.

A few things leap out in comparing him to these players. The first is his consistently higher assist rate when normalized for shot attempts, paired with a higher AST:TO ratio. Tatum is a far higher IQ player than most of these guys, which is again evident in his higher defensive output. These player comparisons, in essence, do not credit Tatum for his relatively good passing, IQ, and strong college defensive play.

Notice, too, the wildly differing shot profiles between Tatum, Rudy Gay, and DeMar DeRozan. Tatum is a far superior free throw shooter than either player and attempted nearly twice as many 3-pointers as well. They are both very pessimistic outcomes for a player who produced as Tatum did in college.

Carmelo, too, is nothing like Tatum. Anthony was a more gifted college scorer, as he shouldered an incredible creation burden as a freshman, and managed decent efficiency while doing so. But he simply didn’t look for teammates to the extent that Tatum does, a criticism that has been evident throughout his career. The Carmelo comparison also doesn’t give Tatum credit for the possibility that he can become a good defender. Carmelo had more defensive equity as a prospect than has been realized during his career.

Here are some NBA players whose college numbers aligned much more closely with Tatum’s.

Notice how much more uniform the colors are here. A few important points on these comparisons:

  1. These are macro stats, not micro stats, so these won’t take playing style (shot selection and isolation tendency) into account.
  2. There are a wide spectrum of outcomes encapsulated here. Rudy Gay is infamous for making teams better after he has left them. Kawhi is a superstar. Antoine Walker had lazy and selfish streaks a mile wide. Pierce was a Top 5 wing in the league.
  3. Some of the reasons some of these players might have tapped into higher outcomes may not apply to Tatum. He doesn’t have the length or strength of Kawhi or the athleticism of George, Deng, or Johnson.

So Tatum’s outcome is surely uncertain. However, there is cause for more optimism than current discussions would hallow.

What about the Sixers?

So how does Tatum project to fit with the Sixers? If you believe in his ability to shoot (and if you’re drafting him in the Top 3, you should definitely believe that he’ll shoot), it’s actually very strong. Even with some strong skills, Tatum doesn’t ever project to grow into a primary creation role. He’ll always be best served playing alongside others who can take on a larger share of the offensive burden. Luckily, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will help in that department.

If he becomes a plus shooter, he’s likely to be a nice offensive fit with Simmons as well. Ben will excel in transition and running the pick and roll, where his vision and physical tools make it difficult for defenders to stay in front of him. But he has struggled in isolation situations because of his own shooting deficiencies— players know that they can play far off of him, dare him to shoot, and prevent him from getting a head of steam on his way to the basket. Embiid will alleviate that problem some on his own, but it’s a type of shot creation for which Tatum will be very useful.

Tatum will also create matchup problems for teams hoping to guard Simmons with a smaller, quicker player. While he is not a freak athlete, he has a strong first step, and he’s more than capable of beating slower bigs off the dribble, and attacking a closeout.

He also brings some ability to run the secondary pick and roll, a must if the Sixers are going to be playing Covington minutes at the 2 or the 3. He can make basic reads to find the roll man or keep the ball himself and take it to the rack.

This would force teams to make a choice: Do they allow Simmons to zip by their bigger defenders or do they allow Tatum to do so? Either option is bad for defenses, and forcing 4’s onto Simmons could allow him to tap into some better downhill driving opportunities.

Tatum’s ballhandling also makes it easier to conceptualize playing him alongside both Simmons and Covington. The Sixers could play monster wing lineups with Covington manning the 2-guard position. They would benefit from positive defense from all 4 large positions without losing the ballhandling ability usually reserved for the 2-spot, because they would be getting it from Tatum.

On defense, he could guard 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s without much issue. With Covington taking the most difficult assignment and Simmons likely taking the biggest player, Tatum shouldn’t have much difficulty fitting into the Sixers’ scheme and contending with the weakest perimeter player.

He is similarly enticing next to Dario. Combining the creation ability of the two of them against bench units could become a major advantage for the Sixers over the course of a season. Most backups simply don’t have to contend with two players as skilled and as big as Tatum and Dario, and their (relative) lack of defensive clout would be less impactful against weaker bench creators.

If I were picking at 3 with Fultz and Ball off the board, Tatum wouldn’t be my pick. But I would very strongly consider taking him, and I wouldn’t be disappointed if the Sixers did. He fits well with the existing Sixers’ core while offering both complementary role player capability and some two-way creation upside.