As Jayson Tatum stood on the stage, the pandemonium swirling around him, confetti at his feet, Jay Z and Alicia Keys blaring, he looked placidly over the scene inside Barclays Arena with an air of nonchalance.
This was, after all, what he came to Duke to do. To dominate. To win titles. Tatum was the best player on the court in the ACC tournament, even if Luke Kennard ended up winning the vote for those honors.
There was very little about the celebration that seemed to provoke much enthusiasm. It was very much business as usual for Tatum.
Why else would he have come to Duke, if not for this? What was all the fuss about?
He knew he could play like this all along – and may still have more to offer.
“I would like to think so,” Tatum said Thursday, as second-seeded Duke prepared to open the NCAA tournament against 15th-seeded Troy on Friday.
“It was just about him doing things sharp, and doing things quick,” teammate Amile Jefferson said. “The talent is just oozing out of him.”
If the ACC tournament is any indication, Tatum has reached his peak in the postseason. The four-game run of 20, 25, 24 and 19 points was his best four-game scoring stretch of the season, and Duke incorporated a new Tatum-based wrinkle into its offense, flashing him in the post early in the offense, looking for a quick post-to-post pass as the defense converges on Tatum, or a turnaround jumper if it doesn’t. At 6 foot 8, with the quickness of a guard, he’s a walking mismatch in that spot.
Tatum wasn’t particularly effective from 3-point range – he was 3-for-15 in the tournament – but he did just about everything else, making the pass to set up Matt Jones’ title-clinching 3-pointer in addition to the dunk that started the comeback against North Carolina. And perhaps more importantly, he showed an inherent sense of his place in the offense, easily sharing the ball with Kennard and Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson with an alacrity those four players struggled to discover until late in the season.
“You’re used to, if you give it up, you might not get it back. Especially with this being his first year playing with this team, it’s not a bad thing to feel that way,” Allen said. “It’s just what happens. We trust each other a lot and he knows if he gets that switch and he gives the ball up and gets in the post position, he’s going to get it back. And if he doesn’t get it back, he should let me know.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski acknowledged he thought Tatum would be playing at this level earlier, but Tatum’s integration into the Duke offense – and the resulting catalytic effect it has had on the team, with his unique and devastating talent now utilized to its full effectiveness – took a while, in part because of the foot injury that kept him out of the first eight games. It also coincided with the biggest stage yet Duke has encountered.
In that sense, Tatum has a lot in common with Tyus Jones, the preternaturally calm freshman point guard on the 2015 national champions. In the big games – at Virginia to start Duke’s late-season winning streak, in both wins over North Carolina, in the ACC tournament, and the NCAA tournament – Jones’ scoring average jumped by 50 percent. There’s a lot of that in Tatum, whose scoring average jumped by 40 percent in the ACC tournament.
“There’s still another level to be shown, and this is the last tournament,” fellow Duke freshman Harry Giles said. “There’s definitely more to be shown.”
Tatum didn’t come to Duke to play at Boston College on a Tuesday night. He came to Duke for the big games. The games only get bigger now. This is a national stage. With each passing game, the spotlight gets brighter. He’s been waiting for this. It’s his time.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock