Rookies are raw and unpredictable. They are inherently erratic, often confused, and, in a grand sense of overall NBA play, generally not very good.
However, the guys who become good NBA players show enough of the right things early in their career that it’s easy to predict their eventual greatness (or at least pretty good-ness). One of those rookies showing a lot of promise is Jayson Tatum.
It’s too early to say what kind of overall numbers Tatum will put up this year. He will undoubtedly go through some rough stretches where he doesn’t look good. Maybe those stretches will be spread over multiple games.
However, the first three games of this season have given us a few plays where Tatum has displayed a high-level skill that will serve as a building block for sustained, high-quality play over the coming years.
People don’t generally talk about court awareness because, well, it’s kinda boring. It’s one of those wonky discussions that most fans don’t really care about but, ultimately, is at the heart of nearly every great play.
Players with great awareness can instantly capitalize on opponents mistakes. When two players with great awareness see the same thing at the same time, the result is often beautiful.
This play may not look like much, but I’ve been drooling over it ever since it happened.
Tatum on the left wing casually sets up with the ball. There’s no lane to drive through. There’s no cutter. But there is a weak defender, a stud scorer to his left, and an amazing passer to his right. Time to dance.
Tatum scans the floor and sees only one Philly defender has a foot in the lane. The floor is spread nicely and there’s a whole lotta blue with no one there. He knows he can’t dribble through the traffic directly in front of him, but there IS another way in.
He tosses it back to Al Horford and briefly feigns setting a pick for Kyrie Irving. Markelle Fultz is so expecting a pass to Irving that he jumps in anticipation of the ball going there. Meanwhile, Tatum uses the little hop to bounce towards the middle of the lane.
There is nobody there to challenge him. He flashes a little high-sign and Horford delivers it beautifully in stride so Tatum can go right up for the layup.
Tatum didn’t even have the ball for two seconds on the wing. He caught it, recognized the situation, and went to work. That’s a high-level of basketball intelligence from the 19-year-old Tatum. The first step to making great plays is being fully aware of time and space on the floor, and taking advantage of what you see quickly. Tatum worked beautifully with Horford and Irving to get himself an easy two points.
There are a great many rookies who will rely so heavily on their athleticism that the fundamental aspects of their game are less than ideal. The problem with some of these freakish athletes is the NBA is full of also-freakish athletes who can mitigate that athletic advantage.
Tatum isn’t jumping over people for monster dunks or hitting threes from just over half court, so he has to find other ways to score. Once he’s displayed that awareness and determined a course of action, that ball still has to get through the hole. One impressive thing with Tatum is how he can make a simple, fundamental play without trying to do too much.
This is simple: T. J. McConnell is smaller than Tatum, so Tatum decides to abuse the mismatch. Al Horford recognizes the situation and clears out, leaving the left side of the lane open. Tatum’s goal is to simply get close to the basket and shoot over the top of McConnell. There is no way McConnell can challenge Tatum in this situation.
This is where some rookies go off the rails, though. There is a strong temptation to cross a guy over in this situation and try to dunk on his head. Players hunting for highlights would love a situation like this, but it’s fraught with peril.
Help defenders can slide over and block the shot or strip the ball. The defender and slide into place and draw the charge. The difficult nature of the play can result in a flat-out miss.
Tatum, though, sees and takes a simpler route. He’s got a clear left side of the lane so he’s going to take it. He gets into a McConnell’s body a little bit to help nudge him in the direction he’s already going, thus using his momentum against him (more on this in a moment). Using the space he just created for himself, he rises up for a simple, fundamentally sound, bank shot.
NBA players so often try to do too much that simple plays like this stand out beautifully. Sportscenter isn’t going to lead the show with this play, but it’s the type of play guys need to make to average 20-plus points per game.
Even if a guy manages a couple of monster highlights, those are going to be worth four-to-six points. It’s these solid plays that make consistent, reliable scorers.
The best players in the NBA possess a slyness that lets them get what they want, when they want. It’s a skill honed over time, with the rigors of battle teaching them tricks of the trade.
The more players experience, the more the good ones can develop counters to the moves they’ve seen.
In an abstract sense, the development of an NBA career is similar to the development of a martial arts system. Only through time, practice, and experience can one truly master the craft.
However, there are naturals; those who take to the craft quickly and display some of the keen intelligence that belies their youth.
Here’s Tatum posting up against Kris Middleton.
First, he’s not afraid of the contact, which is nice. There’s always a fear that a young kid will shy away from that kind of stuff. We’ve seen Tatum initiate the contact a few times now.
Second, each bump has meaning. For instance, the McConnell play, where the bump enhanced McConnell’s momentum going away from Tatum, making it impossible for him to challenge the shot.
Let’s look this more closely.
The first bump gets Tatum some space. It also lets him know what he’s dealing with in Middleton.
“Can I back this guy down? Is he going to give ground? How’s he defending me?”
The split second of contact answers all those questions for him. Here’s where it gets fun.
The information he got back from that first bump told him to try a turnaround jumper. But when he turned around, Middleton was right there, so that plan went out the window. That’s where Tatum bumps Middleton again, this time with a different purpose.
That second shoulder into Middleton’s chest was essentially the beginning of Tatum’s jump shot. Taking that shot to the chest puts a defender just off-balance enough that he can’t fully challenge the shot.
Tatum put that shoulder down specifically because he knew he was going to shoot it. He was determined to get that shot up and he was going to make sure Middleton wasn’t going to rise up and challenge it. A well placed shoulder bump was just enough to clear that space.
This is advanced-level scoring.
Of course these are just three plays from three games. We can easily scroll through video and find bad things Tatum has done. But again, this is what rookies do. They will make mistakes.
Rookies don’t often possess Tatum’s scoring acumen, though. While I’m not saying he’s a genius level player, he is clearly ready to skip a grade or two. Tatum’s game has a maturity and smoothness to it that clearly put him ahead of a lot of other rookies, and suggest Danny Ainge knew exactly what he was doing heading into the draft.