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The Power of Creation: Analyzing the offensive impact of Jayson Tatum

How does Jayson Tatum’s game mesh in today’s NBA?

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics’ plan all along was to get another scorer that could help the take the pressure off of Isaiah Thomas. That man was once thought to be Markelle Fultz, but the Celtics had their eyes on another prize throughout this entire process, and on Thursday they cashed in by selecting Jayson Tatum of Duke. This was the guy that the Celtics had number 1 on their board. Not Markelle Fultz, not Lonzo Ball, not Josh Jackson, but Jayson Tatum. The smooth-scoring wing had Ainge in a downright jovial mood during his post-draft conference. But why? What should we actually make of this kid?

Who is Jayson Tatum

Standing at 6’9” with a 6’11” wingspan and weighing roughly 205 lbs, Tatum has a lean, lanky body that’s expected to fill during the duration of his career. Tatum has the physical profile to become an effective two-way versatile player, and the Celtics have already told him such:

Simply put, the Celtics know where the league is going as do most teams in the league. The more you can do, the better, specifically in the playoffs. What separated Tatum from some of the other talented wings in the draft such as Josh Jackson and Jonathan Isaac was his ability to score. As. good as the Celtics were last year, the lack of creators really limited them offensively in the playoffs. Too much of their success was tied to the system, and though that speaks volumes about how well-coached the team was, every once in awhile you just need a guy who can get you a bucket regardless of how well-prepared the other team is for your sets. Tatum has the potential to be one of those guys.

How does Tatum’s game translate to the Celtics system?

Tatum is probably neck and neck with Markelle Fultz when it comes to offensive polish. Because he’s not necessarily a guy who’s going to beat defenders by blowing by them with elite athleticism or burst, Tatum uses an array of awesome stepbacks, jab steps, spin moves, dirk fadeaway, crossovers, etc. to gain his separation from defenders.

On a team like Boston that prides itself on keeping the ball moving and making good decisions, plays like this highlight the value of what Tatum can do. Here, the important thing actually wasn’t the bucket, but his ability to grab the rebound and go. Because he pushed the ball himself, Clemson wasn’t able to match up properly which got him the mismatch in the post. Great ball movement, willing passers, and wings who ‘grab and go’ put tremendous pressure on the defense and can lead to guys being forced into compromising matchups. Tatum gave glimpses of player that can not only aid in creating those matchups, but one that knows to exploit them as well.

Now watch on this play below against Notre Dame. As soon Tatum realizes Notre Dame opted to play man defense to start the game and sees the lengthy but smaller V.J. Beachem on him, he immediately gets to his spot and gets separation with a dirk-esque fadeaway. These are just skills that aren’t normally found in a prospect who just turned 19.

After missing the first 9 games during the season with a foot injury, Tatum used the earlier part of the year to kind of get acclimated to his role and what Coach K wanted, but by the beginning of February he really started to find his groove. During that second half of the season Tatum averaged 17.5ppg, 7.2rpg, 2.3apg, 1.1spg, shot 46 FG%, 37.6 3P%, and shot 82 FT% on about 4.6 attempts per game. Duke relied on Tatum for scoring production, and he really improved more and more as the year went on.

Some of the criticism that Tatum gets is that his game is too mid-range oriented, and it doesn’t translate well to the NBA level. Let’s take a look at Tatum’s offensive play type breakdown via Synergy:

(Photo credit to Chris Forsberg of ESPN Boston)

In his lone year at Duke, Tatum’s offensive game was primarily based on Spot-ups, Isolation, and pushing in transition. Because of the amount of Isolations, there’s an assumption that his game is primarily only based on holding the ball for long periods of time and trying to score; something he won’t be able to do as well as he did in college. On one hand I agree, isolation is a highly inefficient way to score, and the competition will in fact be tougher. However, Tatum’s isolation possessions weren’t the prototypical “clear-out” plays that we’ve seen, but they came within in the flow of the offense. Take his play for example:

Tatum pushes, causes mismatch, gets position, and scores. It’s within this context where Tatum’s isolation skill is at its best and it comes within the offense. So it comes at no surprise that Coach Stevens told A. Sherrod Blakely that, “ [Tatum] fits not only how we play, but how we want to play.”

I’d also like to point your attention to Tatum’s ability in the pick and roll as a ball-handler where he generates a solid 1.09ppp.

You’ll notice that these type of plays only makeup 4.2% of his offense which is no fault of his own. The college and NBA game are vastly different creatures. While the NBA is player-oriented and is driven by their talent, the NCAA is very coach-oriented and predicated on systems. The pick and roll game isn’t a main recipe for every college team and Duke wasn’t one them since they played without a true point guard. The Blue Devils obviously did well without one, but what it meant was that Tatum didn’t get a lot of opportunities to play in the pick and roll where his game would have the potential to be an absolute nightmare for opposing teams. At the next-level and even as soon as summer league he’ll be put in those situations in a lot of half-court sets, and he’ll be able to use his elite set of offensive moves in the favorable situations that pick and rolls usually create for the screener.

A similar situation can be found in his limited post-up game despite being arguably the best prospect at it.

Tatum is a smooth operator in the post who is comfortable with his back to the basket and has an awesome feel from the position. Even though big men that post-up are no longer a strong part of NBA offenses, posting up is still very much a thing that teams do because it’s a great set to run offense through. We saw this a lot from the Celtics with Marcus Smart this year who flourished running the offense from the post whenever opposing teams put a smaller guard on him. In Tatum’s case this could prove even more effective because unlike Smart he has multiple moves he can actually use effectively, and his size coupled with that ability makes the defense more prone to collpase.

In the play above, the defense simply off instincts saw the mismatch Tatum had created and rotated over to help on Tatum. Tatum instantly sees the defense breakdown because he never stopped surveying the floor and luckily his teammate saw the play and made an excellent cut. Even in a free-flowing pass and go offense this type of skill-set is a wonderful tool because it gives the defense another avenue to get the defense on its heels.

Jayson Tatum is not Kevin Durant, but in a situation where he’s matched up on a player as small as Cameron Payne it could make the defense make the same mistake due to his terrific size.

So what can Tatum become?

Tatum’s offensive polish is such a valuable tool because it gives him the ability to play effectively in the type of offense the Celtics have while giving the team a scoring punch who can go get his own shot. I imagine the Celtics envision that at 19, they’ll be able to mold him into a versatile wing who can be either the ball-handler or roll-man in the pick and roll, lead the break or fill the gaps in transition, and give the Celtics a wing who can exploit mismatches when teams try to hide a weak defender on him. Like all rookies, Tatum has areas to improve on such as his tendency to stop the ball, take too long to make decisions with the basketball, and shoot the three more consistently. But the toolbox for Jayson Tatum’s game is full, now it’s up to the Celtics to build their star.

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