Before Duke University, before Thursday’s NBA Draft, Jayson Tatum was focusing on the Highland Shootout, a vaunted matchup between his Chaminade College Prep squad and Illinois’ top team, Althoff Catholic. It was the best team in Missouri facing off with Illinois’ best.
The scoreboard was close until late, when Chaminade’s five-star Duke signee asserted little doubt over the outcome or who the MVP of the contest would be. Tatum unloaded 32 points alongside 13 rebounds en route to a massive win that coach Frank Bennett ranked among his best memories coaching the soon-to-be NBA draftee.
Tatum danced at half-court after the victory when he was declared MVP, relishing in the spotlight that basketball was providing him for the moment, 33 miles from his home city of St. Louis. The city wasn’t kind to a young Tatum; the process of training relentlessly and succeeding on the basketball court was more affectionate. That’s why, back in his elementary school years, he had declared his ideal career would be an NBA star.
To that point, the dream had only earned him the typical doubt of teachers listening to such idealistic aspirations. Then came a chance to play on the state’s top prep squad. Soon Tatum had a song named after him, slightly better than the John Wall anthem from 2010. “Jayson Tatum” blasted through the speakers after Tatum’s victory in Illinois, and as one Youtube commenter notes, “if (you’re) from St. Louis you know this song.”
Thursday night that song could be popular in a different city, Boston, as the Celtics may give Tatum what he started playing for—an NBA draft cap as the third overall pick.
Bennett said the highly-coveted prospect he coached through high school was a humble one. It was out of Tatum’s element to be celebrating a victory with his name blasting through the speakers. Bennett was more accustomed to seeing Tatum in the gym working.
“There’s countless stories of him he worked every single day; before school, after school, after practice, after games. He’s just relentless,” Bennett said.
That basketball obsession was partially inspired by his father, Justin Tatum. He and Brandy Cole had Jayson before they both turned 20 years old. Justin recalled that when he was born, he was just starting his college basketball career in a journey that would bring him in and out of Jayson’s early life. Their shared bond would be basketball.
“We always went one-on-one from probably when he was seven, eight years old. His skill-set that I really noticed was around that age, eight or nine, where he can easily do things with the left hand, the right hand to get a shot off,” the elder Tatum said.
“Jayson, beside his skill-set, one of the things that intrigued me about him was his IQ and understanding of the game. Things that he probably seen some of his favorite players on TV do, he will go and try to emulate that not only in practice...but in the game. He always wanted to challenge himself mentally, but I always noticed the skill-set coming up because that’s what we worked on from the beginning.”
Tatum’s surge had several echelons of inspiration. First, it was a love of the game. Then, that passion was reinforced by a mission to help his mother and father who were grinding to support him as young parents.
Cole, his mother, always pushed to make sure they had a place to sleep, but when foreclosure struck that didn’t always lend itself to be a certainty. That security could be salvaged forever with a multi-million dollar NBA deal.
“It’s filled his desire to make it to the NBA and be one of the NBA greats,” coach Bennett said. “But it’s also kept him humble, knowing how things have been. He’s not the one who takes things for granted.”
Those NBA aspirations had to first be supported by separation from others his age. At 11, he learned that it’s not always about using brute force and size to take over the basketball court—there’s a skill element that’s as important no matter your size.
Justin had brought Jayson along to his men’s league game, expecting him to watch and get some shots up while he played. Then, Justin’s team was missing a player and only had four. Justin called on his son to play, who had doubts about battling with grown men who overshadowed him. His dad gave him a line of focus to succeed, and he was in.
“I just told him ‘hey you have to find a way to get your shot off and we’ll rebound and help you on the defense. You have to find a way to get smarter.’”
Tatum and the big boys grabbed rebounds and made the stops. Working off of that defense, the younger Tatum spilled out on the fast-break, hit his threes, and finished his layups on the run. In a game he wasn’t sure he’d be able to compete in, he scored over 20 points and helped his team win.
At that point, Justin said, he didn’t have any doubts about scoring on people his own age.
When the Celtics worked out Tatum on draft week, they had a chance to see what made him sizzle at Duke and get a look into his mindset as a player. Unlike most people his age, Tatum brought an elite skill set into the workout that impressed Boston’s brass: his footwork.
Coach Bennett remembers that part of his game from several years ago: “He’s extremely efficient with his movements and then also his footwork sets up a ton of countermoves so he’s virtually un-guardable because he’s hard to predict. If you take something away he has a counter to almost everything.”
Many of the best players in this year’s draft hope to be able to improve their scoring abilities, but Tatum’s fine-tuned body control and feet mechanics make him a compelling option to put the ball in the hoop from day one. He can spin, cut, set and shoot with the fluid motions to drive to the basket without coordination issues. It sounds simplistic, but scoring starts from the ground up, and despite not being the super-athlete his peers are, he looks to be the best scorer right away.
Those extra hours in the weight room have also given him a formidable frame to add to his already impressive 6’8” height and 7’0” wingspan. Brad Stevens saw his tools and his excellent size for his position, and those attributes highlighted Stevens’s most valued trait in a young player: versatility.
Brad Stevens told Jayson Tatum he valued his ability to guard 1-4 while also packaging elite scoring ability.— Jake Fischer (@JakeLFischer) June 21, 2017
Upside is one of the most appealing attributes everyone looks for in their draft prospects, but immediate impact suits a Cs team that is already in the upper ranks of the East. For Stevens, Tatum, and their shared head for hoops, the match might have been made in basketball heaven.
Stevens said it’s hard not to play guys like Tatum. That’s no surprise to Bennett, who coached him for years.
“He was in our middle school...the funny thing is it’s similar to what (Stevens) said. His versatility was through the roof, so when you look at it he’s in 7-8th grade, he’s passing the ball extremely well, he’s creating great shots for himself and his teammates. He’s rebounding every single trip, he’s blocking shots. He just had a huge handprint in the game.”
Then there was the basketball IQ. Tatum’s terminology was advanced beyond his years. All Bennett had to call out was vocabulary: “A.I. cuts,” “floppy sets,” he had the professional lingo down. He could leave crucial plays to his star, because all coach had to do was verbalize what he wanted Tatum to do. The visualization happened in Tatum’s head, like a Stevens ATO.
“He can make an in-game adjustment without you having to take a timeout and diagram it. That’s really special.”
So special that Bennett, a coach who was continuously looking to improve in his own right, got a call from one of the greatest coaches in basketball history about his player. Mike Krzyzewski, Coach K, team USA, national champion wanted Tatum in blue.
Suddenly Tatum was far from Missouri, with a platform to take the family name from the shadows of society to the spotlight. Duke was a top-ten team during his lone season and he was one of the key centerpieces to what some called Coach K’s greatest recruiting class.
Krzyzewski and Bennett talked strategy, and other schools inquired, but it was done. Tatum was headed to North Carolina, where he went on to score 16.8 points per game alongside over seven rebounds, two assists and a steal and block every night. He started the season on the lower end of Chad Ford’s touted big board. Now on draft night, he’s picked up enough momentum to be Danny Ainge’s guy at number three.
Ainge has said that he expects the same guy who he wanted to take first overall to be there at three. It could be Tatum, and whether it’s the Celtics’ hat or any other, he’ll have finally accomplished the dream of taking his family’s hard work and putting it on the national stage.
The question of where he’d sleep at night is now replaced by what suit he’ll wear when he shakes Adam Silver’s hand in Brooklyn. It’s another step in the journey, but not the final goal for Tatum.
His father sees more: “I want multiple championships, hall-of-fame, I want it all for him because he is that good. He hasn’t scratched the surface.”
“I just hope (Celtics) understand how much Jayson’s worth is.”