Duke freshman sensation Jayson Tatum officially declared for the NBA draft after the Blue Devils’ stunning loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. Tatum projects as a top five pick in the NBA Draft, but how does his skill set compare to current NBA players, and how might his potential translate to the league?
Ceiling: Kevin Durant
Now, by no means is this to say that Tatum will become one of the most prolific scorers of the generation. However, he has that unique inside-out skill set and the ability to face up or make fallaway jumpers in the post. Durant can certainly score on the interior, but he really gets cooking when he can handle the ball and make plays on the perimeter. Tatum is very similar. His ability to isolate defenders and make strong drives to the rim bodes well for the rest of his game, especially his outside shooting (which should improve in the pros). Durant has obviously become a great defender and elite shot blocker with his size and crazy wingspan. Tatum isn’t quite there yet. He struggled to defend on screens, and occasionally seemed susceptible against post players. That being said, he made some spectacular plays on that end throughout the year, including an assortment of blocks reminiscent of LeBron James. Perhaps most importantly, Tatum performs in the clutch. His second half outings on the road against Virginia and in multiple matchups against North Carolina were superb, and despite his youth he seems to embrace the gravity of big moments. That kind of killer mentality is rare in the pros, and is a valuable trait to bring into the NBA.
Floor: Al-Farouq Aminu
Aminu has quietly been one of the more respectable small forwards in the NBA since he came out of Wake Forest in 2010. Like Tatum, Aminu has good length and athleticism, with the ability to make plays on both sides of the ball. Aminu is not quite as skilled in the post as Tatum has shown, but he still loves to play inside out (although he’s shooting just 32 percent from deep this year after connecting on 36 percent last season for the Portland Trail Blazers). Tatum and Aminu stack up as relatively similar shooters, and Aminu probably rates as a better individual defender than Tatum, but it would be Tatum’s potential offensive inefficiency that would make him more comparable to Aminu. Remember that Tatum benefitted tremendously from having other scorers like Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen on this Duke team. If he suddenly becomes a no. 1 option, will he be able to efficiently handle the scoring load? Can he consistently improve his shooting? If not, he may experience a career more similar to Aminu’s.
Most likely: Harrison Barnes
This is perhaps the best comparison because we’re saying to what extent Barnes can flourish when he becomes one of the centerpieces of an organization. The former Tar Heel and All-American has the duality of banging in the post and dunking on elite centers as well as knocking down big shots from downtown. Barnes almost single-handedly kept the Dallas Mavericks afloat while Dirk Nowitzki was sidelined with injury early in the season, and his immense improvement at the free throw line (from 76 percent in 2015-2016 to 85 percent this season) point tot he subtle improvements he has continued to make as a player. I see Tatum’s career path panning out in very similar fashion. Granted, Barnes was blessed with the opportunity to play with one of the most efficient and explosive offenses of all times when he was with Golden State, but his development as an individual standout at the small forward show progression. Tatum has similar shooting numbers to Barnes, including from the free throw line where he shot about 85 percent. Tatum may even be a better rebounder than Barnes, though we’ll see how his size and relatively lanky frame translate to the pro level. All told, with Barnes looking like a potential star in the league, Tatum would likely be thrilled to follow along a similar path.