Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum

Posted: 05/16/2017 by levcohen in Basketball, Draft

It’s a big night in the NBA, with Game 2 of the Warriors-Spurs series and, more importantly, the NBA draft lottery. I’m not going to preview the NBA Conference Finals, because both matchups lack intrigue, especially now that Kawhi Leonard is injured. Here’s my quick prediction: neither the Cavs nor the Warriors will enter the Finals undefeated, but neither will have more than two losses. In other words, both Golden State and Cleveland will win in five or six games and roll into the Finals, which, I would argue, is where the playoffs really start (because this Finals matchup has been a foregone conclusion for so long). And while I know a lot of people/websites are doing it, I’m not going to predict what’s going to happen in the lottery tonight, because come on. Instead of writing about the playoffs or the lottery, I’m going to focus on the players that conventional wisdom says are the premier wings in the draft: Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum.

Let me say this right away: I’m not going to speculate about Josh Jackson’s off-court issues, because I know nothing about them. The misdemeanor property charge is definitely something teams will have to look into, but I’m going to ignore it for the sake of this post, not because I don’t think it’s an important consideration. I love Josh Jackson as a player, because he’s the one guy in the draft who left an obvious imprint on every game he played in. It’s rare that a college player, and especially a college freshman, can find a way to positively impact a game when he’s not scoring. Jackson’s top selling point is that he can do that. There are a few types of intriguing defensive prospects. There are raw, long, athletic, high-potential players who often disappeared in college games. There are scrappy, high-effort players who generally find their niches in the NBA. And then, very rarely, there are athletic, active, high-potential, high-effort guys. Josh Jackson is one of those guys. Jackson’s a 6’8″ wing with a 6’10” wingspan. He is always active on the defensive end, and he averaged 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game in 31 minutes per contest. He’s very laterally quick, and he makes up for his relative lack of length with outstanding anticipation skills and a great basketball IQ. He’s strong enough to guard power forwards and quick enough to guard point guards. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of wings switching on screens in the NBA. Based solely on his physical skills, Jackson is the prototypical NBA wing defender. Just as important, though, is the fact that Jackson clearly enjoys playing defense and takes pride in his ability to shut down a star player. A lot of players should be defense-first; few actually embrace that role.

Offensively, Jackson usually found a way to impact Kansas’s games. He scored in single figures just three times all year despite averaging just 12.3 shots per game as Kansas’s second or third option. He’s quietly a very unselfish, smart, and good passer, as he averaged three assists per game and excelled at making the extra pass to turn a decent look into a great one, a skill that’s very important to have in the NBA, where spacing is king. He’s a menace in fastbreak situations, with the athleticism and body control to finish at the rim. He’s not as good in the halfcourt offense, but few guys are coming out of college. The real question, of course is his shot. On the surface, there’s nothing to worry about: Jackson shot 38% from three in his lone season at Kansas. He finished the season on a 25-for-52 tear from beyond the arc. But he shot just 57% from the line, and he has a really funky release. Watch this clip and tell me you think Jackson will be a good tree point shooter at the next level:

If he’s going to be a legit 37% three point shooter in the NBA, Jackson should be at least the #2 pick in the draft, because everything else is the real deal. On a team with Frank Mason, the Naismith Player of the Year, Jackson was clearly the team’s most important player — they lost to TCU in the lone game he missed. I find it hard to believe that Jackson will never become at least a suitable shooter, which is why I like him so much as a prospect. But even if he’s a 30% three point shooter, he’ll find ways to score the ball and to be a key contributor at the next level. The sky is the limit for Jackson, but I don’t think his floor is as low as some have made it out to be, thanks to his selflessness, his competitiveness, his defensive ability, and his basketball IQ.

Offensively, Jayson Tatum is the most polished player in the draft. I hate to use that word, because it’s the one everyone uses to describe Tatum’s offensive game, but it really is apt. Give Tatum the ball in the post, and he’ll outmuscle smaller players or deke past big men (1.303 points per possession in the post, 99th percentile). Give it to him on the wing and clear out, because he can take a slow defender to the hoop or pull up from midrange against a smaller player. Tatum’s a great isolation player, because he’s both big (6’8 with a 6’11” wingspan and a wide frame that should make him a force to be reckoned with as he fills out) and fluid. He has a whole bag of tricks, from crossovers to hesitation dribbles to fadeaways. If you want a guy who can find his own midrange shot, Tatum’s your guy. The problem is that the NBA is quickly moving away from isolation ball and midrange shots. The Raptors flamed out against the Cavs in the second round, partly because they didn’t have LeBron James but also because their offensive gameplan — which was predicated on a lot of isolation ball and midrange shots — was no match for Cleveland’s barrage of three pointers. Tatum shot just 34% from three at Duke, largely because he has a slow release that makes it difficult to get an open look unless he’s wide open. To be a great offensive weapon on the wing in this day and age, you pretty much have to shoot threes. DeMar DeRozan put up a lot of points this season, but when push came to shove he was pretty easy to slow down in the playoffs, because opponents could sag off of him, forcing him to give the ball up or take a three. Tatum did show some passing upside, and I’m confident that he could fit in a more free-flowing offense, just as I’m just DeRozan could do the same. But if Tatum’s really an offense-only player, his offensive game is not good enough to justify a top-five selection.

Defensively, Tatum’s probably better than he’s given credit for. He’s not a flashy athlete, but he’s versatile enough to guard both forward positions pretty well. He’s a good defensive rebounder, and he averaged 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. There’s no reason to expect him to be a premier defender, and I certainly wouldn’t want him guarding Kevin Durant, but there’s also no reason to believe he won’t fit in well in a good defensive scheme that provides plenty of support for a wing defender. It’s hard to get excited about his defensive upside when he’s compared to Josh Jackson, but I could easily see him defending as well as Justin Jackson, a guy who got a lot of plaudits for his defensive performances in the NCAA tournament. I think Tatum will be solid defensively, and if he’s solid defensively, he has a really high floor as a skilled role player who provides a lot of offense in 25-30 minutes per game. I’m not sure how high his ceiling is, and I’d disagree with the people who say he’s a future 27-30 points per game scorer, because I don’t think he’s athletic enough or a good enough shooter to consistently score that much. But Tatum’s definitely a guy I’d like to have on my team.

If it wasn’t clear before this, I prefer Jackson to Tatum, because I’m more confident in his ability to always positively impact a game and because I think he fits in better in the modern NBA. Jackson’s my #2 prospect in this draft class. But Tatum’s a darn good prospect in his own right and someone I’ll probably have in the 5-7 range of my final big board.

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