Jayson Tatum Fits a Classically Overrated Player Archetype

Jayson Tatum should not be seen as a borderline consensus top-5 pick in this year’s draft. It makes sense that “classical” scouting views him as so, but why the more new-age numbers-driven blogger community agrees does not add up.

Big wings who can score the ball but aren’t quite elite creators have been some of the more overrated players in the league in recent history. Harrison Barnes, Tobias Harris, Jeff Green, and Rudy Gay are examples of this player type. Barnes and Harris have turned themselves into average NBA rotation guys, but neither are as good as their reputation suggests.

It is funny because some who view Jayson Tatum as a top-5 pick believe that players like Barnes/Harris are the type of talents deserving of a top-5 pick. Others, and this is where a far more interesting discussion lies, believe that Tatum is a better version of players in said archetype and is thus deserving of top-5 selection. There are two main reasons Tatum is being overrated by draft analysts.

  1. His defensive numbers are not illustrative of his actual ability

Let’s start with the understanding that the available college defensive numbers (steals, blocks, rebounds, and advanced numbers like DRTG or DBPM) do matter. It is very difficult to scout defense, and therefore a players defensive numbers can often do a better job of painting a picture than purely evaluating a player’s athleticism and tools. Additionally, good steal and block rates often reveal things about a player’s instincts and awareness that portend NBA success on both the defensive and offensive end.

Jayson Tatum’s defensive numbers are good. Here, compared against many other big scoring wings you can see his steal and block rates are both on the high end.

Paul Pierce’s #s are not pace adjusted — all numbers from players freshman year (via DraftExpress/Basketball-Reference)

However, as the above numbers should indicate, one cannot simply rely on defensive numbers to judge a defender. Players can be very good at reading passing lanes but struggle to get through screens and guard on the ball (think Lonzo Ball). Other players like to gamble and inflate their counting numbers but aren’t consistently well positioned and smart defenders (Russell Westbrook). Some have good hands that allow them to pick up steals and blocks that don’t actually reflect their overall defensive competence.

From my extensive viewing, Jayson Tatum falls into that latter group. On the ball, he has okay feet but struggles to get low in a stance and can get burned by first-steps or changes in direction. Off ball, he isn’t bad but he can get confused in complex situations and his awareness and positioning don’t jump out as his numbers suggest they might.

He’s better as an interior defender than a perimeter one, but even on the inside he lacks a degree of toughness or length to really bother guys. A couple clips shouldn’t sway your opinion of Tatum’s defense, but it is worth providing some evidence for my assertions. Tatum wasn’t obviously bad at Duke because he mostly was hidden on slower college 4’s. Against an athletic team like UNC his flaws are much more apparent. He just lacks the hip flexibility to stay with guys.

On a play like this next one you can see how Tatum racks up his steals and blocks. His hands allow him to cover for his mistakes at times, but he plays too high up to stick with guys around screens.

As stated though, his issues lie off the ball as well as on it. Here against NC State, he misses the same rotation tagging the roll man on nearly consecutive crucial late-game possessions.

If you don’t want to put blind faith in my eye test on a notoriously difficult part of the game to judge (which is understandable), Duke’s team success is another piece of evidence against Tatum. Duke’s 96.9 defensive rating was 47th in the NCAA according to Kenpom. That is not terrible, but considering two high-level veteran NCAA defenders in Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson played heavy minutes if Tatum were as good as his numbers suggest Duke probably would be a bit better on that end. Even with the tire-fire combination of Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen guarding the perimeter.

All this being said, Tatum’s defense is perfectly okay. He has legitimately good hands, his instincts aren’t broken, and his physical tools are below-average but not terrible. He can be a very similar NBA defender to the likes of Barnes, Harris, Hayward, and other big wings who lack the flexibility to really guard the perimeter or the length to make a difference inside. Those guys are pretty much neutral +0 defenders by BPM/RPM type-metrics if you aggregate over the years.

That’s fine, but it is important to understand that if you’re drafting Tatum in the top-5 it should not be for his defensive impact. Moreover, there is some risk of Tatum being a negative on that end if he focuses too much on offense and doesn’t exert himself on defense (a la Carmelo).

2. His offensive upside is being oversold

You would be right to be thinking, some of those wings in that above group are damn good offensive players! Hayward, Carmelo, Paul Pierce, and others are all good enough offensive players to be worth more than a top-5 pick even if their defense weren’t all that good (and in Pierce’s case even the D was good).

Unfortunately, Tatum is not the offensive player that many of those guys were, particularly Melo and Pierce. Tatum’s offensive numbers at Duke are less impressive when you consider the context of his performance. He played almost exclusively at power forward, and did it on a floor that contained other elite college offensive players and shooters like Kennard, Allen, and even Frank Jackson. So, Tatum was routinely matched up with guys who were slower and less athletic than him and teams couldn’t focus on him too much.

Despite playing in such an advantageous situation, Tatum was mediocre in both his scoring efficiency (50.7 eFG%) and his creation for his teammates (12.4% AST%, 0.82 A/TO). It is just hard for Tatum to “win” when he is matched up against NBA-athlete wings. He doesn’t have the athleticism to consistently create space or finish at the rim, and he is not as crafty and polished as his reputation suggests. His footwork to get to mid-range jumpers is fantastic, but he shows very little in the way of creative finishes or moves to create good looks for himself.

It is also important to understand that Tatum’s outside shot is far from a given. Shooting 84.9% from the free throw line across 139 attempts is a big deal. It suggests his touch and mid-range proficiency are for real, and says good things about his overall skill level. Still, 34.2% from three is not very good, his Nike EYBL 3P% of 24.6% is even less encouraging, and his NCAA looks noticeably all came from right at the three-point line.

The logical conclusion is that he is simply not yet comfortable stretching his range and will do so with time. Even then he probably will top out as an average NBA 3-pt shooter. Shot-doctoring from a couch is always risky, but his mechanics seem very reliant on his wrist action and not his legs, which could make it difficult for him to extend his comfort zone.

Looking at the complete package it is hard to see an offensive star, or even a good secondary creator. If he were a better passer, shooter, or athlete maybe, but he’s not. Gordon Hayward is in many ways the most difficult comparison to debunk. Their AST/TO numbers are very similar, as are their 3P% and FT%. Hayward is also not seen as an elite athlete.

Yet, I do think Hayward is a clear notch above Tatum as an athlete, and it even showed up in his college numbers. In Hayward’s sophomore season he shot a stellar 59.2% from two, which suggests he could finish athletically and stretch his usage in a way Tatum’s 50.4% does not. Hayward was also the better rebounder on both ends of the floor (7.6% offensive rebound rate vs. 4.8%, 23.4% defensive rebound rate vs. 19.7%), and got to the free throw line a fair amount more (.536 career free throw rate vs. Tatum’s .381). Finishing inside, rebounding, and drawing fouls are all indicators of athleticism, and match what my eye test says about Tatum vs. Hayward.

It is also worth mentioning that Hayward was a more confident outside shooter than Tatum as college players (5.8 3PA per 40 pace vs. 4.8). None of these individual gaps are huge, but they match my eye-test perception of Hayward as a more athletic player with better perimeter skills. Tatum has an advantage in post-scoring, but that becomes less relevant in the NBA and leaves Tatum as a definitively worse offensive prospect who reminds me much more of Barnes or Harris than he does Hayward.

I understand that I’m basing a lot of this argument off “my eye-test” but I watched nearly every game of Tatum’s this season and feel pretty good about my takes on him. He’s a slightly below-average athlete for an NBA wing and he doesn’t have the skill level or feel and instincts to compensate.

He can absolutely be a useful rotation player. A slightly better shooting version of Tobias Harris or slightly better passing version of Harrison Barnes is relevant. There even is some chance Tatum shoots better than expected and is a +1–2 guy on the offensive end. Nonetheless, I give him a non-relevant chance of reaching Hayward-level secondary creator good, and his defense doesn’t project as good enough to compensate.

If his shot translates somewhat Tatum has a high-floor as a weak starter or very good bench wing that can fit in many team contexts. There simply isn’t the upside in Tatum’s profile to justify a top-5 selection in a strong draft like this year’s, and he should be considered in the 8–14 range instead.