The man who knows more about Jayson Tatum the man and Jayson Tatum the player has only seen him play a few games in person this season.
Television broadcasts, be it on a big screen or streaming on the phone he keeps in his pocket, and regular conversations are enough to leave Justin Tatum as impressed as everyone else with his son’s play.
“Now that he sees what he can do, he’s not gonna slow down,” Justin Tatum said.
Jayson Tatum arrived at Duke last summer with plans for one great college season and a jump to the NBA. The first serious injury of his career delayed his impact, but it’s finally arrived for the 19-year-old.
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“There’s not a part of the game he’s not touching now, and kind of naturally,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We weren’t sure that he would get there with that interruption he had. So we’re better now just because of him. We’re better because of a few things but he’s a big part of it. I’m proud of him. It’s exciting to coach him and see him work at it all the time.”
Tatum enters his first and, almost certainly, only NCAA tournament after a spectacular ACC tournament. He averaged 22 points per game over Duke’s four games, all wins that brought the Blue Devils their first ACC championship since 2011.
Though he struggled from behind the 3-point line, making just 3 of 15 shots, the smooth 6-8 forward adjusted his game to drive to the rim for baskets or free throws. He made 28 of 41 shots inside the 3-point line (68 percent) and sank 23 of 27 free throws.
Tatum was voted to the all-ACC tournament team and, in the opinion of many, was the ACC tournament’s top player.
Justin Tatum has monitored his son’s season mostly from back home in St. Louis. A former player at St. Louis University, the elder Tatum is a high school coach at Christian Brothers so he’s only been able to see five or six Duke games in person.
But like everyone who watched Jayson Tatum tear up the ACC tournament at Barclays Center in Brooklyn last week, Justin Tatum knows his son is playing his best basketball.
“Right now, every game that I see he’s getting more comfortable and confident,” Justin Tatum said. “His teammates are starting to believe in each other. They know that they need each other in order to win. I think they are all building their confidence right now. But Jayson is playing well.”
NBA draft analysts predicted Jayson Tatum would be a first-round pick before he ever played a game for the Blue Devils. The only doubt in that prognostication came when Tatum suffered a sprained right foot when he landed awkwardly in a late October practice.
The injury didn’t require surgery, but it kept Tatum out of Duke’s first eight games. Already needing to adjust to the college game after standout high school and AAU careers, Tatum faced an additional hurdle.
“He prepared himself to get ready for his college season,” Justin Tatum said, “and to have a two-month setback really frustrated him more than anything.”
The combination of youth and injury delayed Jayson Tatum’s ability to display all his abilities.
“If you are a veteran you already have good habits and hopefully you get back to those habits,” Krzyzewski said. “When you are a young player, you are developing the habits of work, how you eat, how you train. Everything. So in late October, when that happened, he’s in the midst of change. So when he comes back he has to go through all that. He’s not coming back to the habits. So to see where he’s come to now is exciting. I’m proud of him. He’s really playing well and he’s become a really outstanding basketball player.”
One of the things that attracted Tatum to Duke was its use of forwards with his skill set. It started with Grant Hill but has continued to Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram.
All are players at least 6-8 with guard skills. Krzyzewski plays them at small forward where they have a big advantage on the offensive end against bigger, slower players but may give up something on defense.
Duke lost four of its first seven ACC games. In five of them, Krzyzewski wasn’t on the bench for games as he recovered from back surgery.
Tatum went through his toughest stretch as he scored 20 or more points just twice in that stretch. It really wasn’t until his breakout 28-point night when Duke won 65-55 at Virginia that Tatum found his groove.
“It was tough at first, being a freshman and coming off injury and being undersized at the 4,” Jayson Tatum said. “It was tough for me at first. But I’ve grown as a player and the guys in this locker room have helped me out so much. That’s what our team needs is for us to attack that mismatch on the offensive end. Not just scoring but being able to create. Their bigs, you know, can’t really guard a guard. So I think it’s helped me out a lot as of late.”
In regular conversations with his parents and coaches, the message was to keep pushing and the great play would return. That meant extra time in the gym and extra conditioning
“It really shows,” Justin Tatum said. “His catch and shoot is on point now better than it was in the first half of the season when he started playing. His decision-making is coming much better. The flow of the game. He had to put extra work in. He had to catch up.”
That certainly appears to have happened, with last Saturday night’s ACC tournament championship game a prime example.
With the Blue Devils playing their fourth game in four days, Tatum showed no signs of fatigue in the game’s final minutes.
With the score tied at 65, Tatum gave Duke a one-point lead with a free throw with 2:02 to play. He blocked Steve Vasturia’s shot on defense and grabbed the ball to start a coast-to-coast drive that ended with a lay-in for a 68-65 with 1:35 to play.
“I thought when he went full court,” Krzyzewski said, “and I said, ‘What are you doing? Yes, you did it. Like how the hell did you do that?’ All these – no, no, yes, yes, how, wow, that was good.
“And it gave – I thought it gave everyone energy, like somebody on our team could move that fast right now. I thought that was a great play, the block and everything, but that’s like oh. It was terrific. It was so darn good.”
NBA scouts can’t wait to draft Tatum this June. He’s projected to be among the top five picks, which means there’s very little chance he’ll return to Duke for his sophomore season.
Justin Tatum said the family has done its best to keep the focus on Duke’s season and the upcoming NCAA tournament. But they can’t deny what lies ahead this summer.
“It’s coming, we know that,” Justin Tatum said. “We already know that that’s the path that he is on, that he’s headed to the next level. But I’m probably his worst critic besides his mom. I keep on him. Let’s enjoy this moment. Let’s enjoy this time. You can’t get this back.”
Tatum and Duke enjoyed themselves all the way to an ACC championship last week. Now comes the bigger prizes – the Final Four and the NCAA championship.
Jayson Tatum is ready.
“I knew college was going to be tough but it’s still another level from what you thought it would be, especially playing in the ACC, playing for Duke,” he said. “It was tough at first for myself. It’s a long season. You just have to grow with time.”