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Jayson Tatum is a talented player but a questionable fit for the Mavericks

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Tatum has an impressive array of offensive tools and the size NBA teams covet. But could he play alongside Harrison Barnes?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-South Carolina vs Duke Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

My sequence of thoughts while watching Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery:

  • Why didn’t I wear my lucky Frazier suit? Why didn’t Finley??
  • Embiid is fun. It’s a shame he’ll never play a full season. We need more Embiid.
  • Thank God we don’t have a better shot at No. 1, I’d be hyperventilating right now.
  • I’m hyperventilating right now.
  • I blew it. I saw too many black cats, I walked under too many ladders. I should have worn a suit.
  • Screw it! Frazier’s suit isn’t lucky!
  • Sacramento tripping into two top-ten picks, then having to swap a top-three pick is so Sacramento.
  • Embiid is magic. And he is not here for Laker foolishness.
  • The Suns sat every single vet and still couldn’t get a top-three pick.
  • I can’t wait for LaVar Ball to devour the Lakers from within.
  • The Celtics win game seven, giving them home court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals, AND get the No. 1 pick, all in a matter of 72 hours. Guess I should’ve worn my Danny Ainge lucky suit.

So, after all that, the Mavericks have the ninth pick in next month’s NBA Draft. With a deep pool of players, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. But if you’re trying to predict exactly who the Mavs will take, remember that you can look at as many mock drafts as you like, but whenever you have a Sacramento or a New York ahead of you, it’s hard to predict exactly what will happen. So, we’re going to continue to break down every lottery prospect on the board who we think might possibly be available for Dallas’ pick.

This week, we’re looking at Jayson Tatum.

The basics

In one year at Duke, Jayson Tatum averaged 16.8 points 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 33 minutes per game with a PER of 22.4.

Ultimate upside

Paul Pierce

Safe comparison

Rudy Gay

Strengths

Other than Josh Jackson of Kansas, Tatum is the most NBA-ready small forward. He is composed and mature for his age and looks primed to contribute from day one. Measuring at 6’8” and 205 pounds with a 6’11” wingspan, Tatum practically already possesses the size NBA teams are looking for in their small forwards. And in a league that seems to be getting longer and longer, teams will covet his reach.

But what stands out the most about Tatum is his array of offensive weapons. Because he lacks explosiveness in the half court, Tatum finds ways to create space for himself with a variety of step backs, change-of-pace dribbles, fade aways and shot fakes. He is most lethal in the mid range, exploiting mismatches with smaller players or using savvy and quickness against big men. The ability to identify each opponent’s specific weakness and use his tools to exploit it will be a valuable one in the NBA, where he’ll face a wider variety of defenders.

With the luxury of NBA spacing, he should also see growth in his perimeter shot. At Duke, Tatum connected on 40.5 percent in unguarded catch-and-shoot situations (per Synergy Sports), demonstrating reliability when the ball is moving or a guard is penetrating. As Tatum acclimates to NBA size and pace, his new team will certainly hope that his perimeter dependability, combined with his 1.303 points per possession in post ups (99th percentile), carries over.

Though whoever drafts him should likely utilize him as a second or third option initially, Tatum already has the ability to take over a game offensively and, potentially, an eventual ceiling as the primary scorer in clutch situations.

Weaknesses

Though a well-rounded contributor, Tatum will need to improve his defensive versatility. At this point he is adequate, averaging just over one steal and one block per game, and his length is useful closing out on perimeter shots and recovering or helping on the block. But, he often over commits or is flat-footed defending the perimeter (he sometimes isn’t in a deep enough stance to maintain lateral quickness).

Despite this, he has the foundation to be an above-average defender. Whether he strengthens his lower body and core will determine if he can guard on the block in the NBA. He spent plenty of time at power forward in college, but wasn’t dealing with the consistent bulk he’ll have to match up with in the pros.

There should also be some questions about how Tatum’s offensive style will translate. A lot of his production is out of iso-heavy midrange situations: 40 percent of his non-transition shot attempts came from two-point jumpers (per Draft Express/hoop-math.com). With average efficiency in that area, combined with his unimpressive 29.3 percent on contested catch-and-shoot situations, Tatum will have to find ways to improve while battling the length of NBA defenders. It is difficult to project his game to the NBA level because he had superior length and was in constant mismatches while at Duke. That edge may not be as prevalent as a pro.

But as a score-first forward, Tatum has the tools and foundation to be a core piece on a growing team, despite these concerns. If he finds ways to shore up his inconsistencies, Tatum will be a future All Star.

Fit with the Mavericks

It doesn’t seem likely that Jayson Tatum falls past the sixth pick. But if he does, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson should gladly bring him to Dallas. The Mavericks desperately need an influx of offensive playmaking, and if this season taught fans anything, it’s that Wizard Rick Carlisle can find ways to design the offense through a young combo forward.

But that’s also the main yellow flag (not quite a full-on red flag): how does an iso-heavy midrange forward play next to... an iso-heavy midrange forward? Harrison Barnes found ways to score this season that no one expected. Carlisle used parts of Dirk’s playbook to get Barnes open off screens and high post positions, spreading the floor and providing space for Barnes to operate in isolation.

But can an offense function at a competitive level with two combo forwards who haven’t shown the ability to get others involved (Tatum averaged 2.1 assists per game this season, Barnes had 1.5) or drive to the rim to draw fouls? It’s tough to project at this point, but in an NBA that values analytics more and mid-range shooting less, two iso-heavy core pieces might be one too many.