Can This Freshman Salvage the Strangest Season in Duke History?

Can This Freshman Salvage the Strangest Season in Duke History?

Why you should care

Because this NBA lottery pick will be gone before finals week.

This season, the most talented college basketball team in the country has weathered injuries and suffered the absence of a true point guard. Their coach temporarily banned them from the locker room and took away their gear. They’ve rallied behind an All-American more famous for on-court tantrums than his premier talent. Yet the Duke Blue Devils have as good a chance as any at national championship reclamation. That is, if they get out of Jayson Tatum’s way.

Nearing the end of a season filled with story lines befitting a One Tree Hill direct-to-DVD sequel, Duke is still searching for its optimum speed. The Blue Devils’ season can be broken into ups and downs, corresponding with the absence and emergence of Tatum. When the dust settles, this season’s narrative will center around the future NBA lottery pick. As a high school senior last year, Tatum was a consensus five-star recruit, third-ranked player in the nation and the second Duke recruit (after Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker) to be named Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year. At 6-foot-8, Tatum, the St. Louis-born son of a basketball coach was a two-time gold medal winner with USA Basketball, and any scout’s dream candidate.

According to ESPN basketball analyst and scout Fran Fraschilla, folks aren’t wrong to infer that Tatum could be the NBA’s next star. “I watched Jayson quite a bit in high school,” Fraschilla tells OZY. “He’s an elite athlete who is excellent in transition. And he has a great ability to score in the mid-range.” If all goes well, he could follow the footsteps of another small forward who led his team to a title and then bounced to the NBA, Carmelo Anthony.

At the start of the year, Duke looked like a smart championship pick. Tatum was fresh, and All-American point guard Grayson Allen had spurned first-round NBA draft projections to return for his junior season. Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson would be the veteran backbone. But then, three of Duke’s top four freshmen — Tatum, and centers Harry Giles and Marques Bolden — began the season injured. Tatum suffered a sprained foot during Duke’s October 25 pro day, when NBA scouts visit practice.

When he finally debuted against Maine on December 3, Duke held a 7–1 record, the only blemish a two-point loss to top-ranked Kansas. Tatum scored 10 points and snatched eight rebounds in the first half. The next game, against 12th-ranked Florida, Tatum scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half. “Jayson had one of those stretches,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told OZY after the game. “A few minutes that separate outstanding players from everyone else.”

Yet Tatum’s dream team may not churn out the happy ending—drama has threatened to tank even their supreme levels of talent. Allen’s statistics have fallen off in every meaningful category, as he’s failed to find a groove sharing the ball with Tatum or Luke Kennard, the 6-foot-6 sophomore guard and national player of the year candidate. Allen’s also continued his history of tripping opponents and had a sideline meltdown, leading to intense criticism and a one-game suspension. And super freshman point guard Frank Jackson, the only healthy rookie entering the season and a potential NBA first-rounder, has struggled to adjust to his role as distributor, occasionally curbing opportunities for Kennard and Tatum to find an offensive rhythm.

But sometimes, Tatum’s power can almost stand alone. On February 15, he hit a career-high 28 points against Virginia, single-handedly propelling Duke to victory against the nation’s top defense. Duke has now won 10 of its last 13 games and will seek revenge against North Carolina in the ACC semifinals on Friday night. A win would lock up a top seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

In the above tweet, following the Virginia game, Coach K referenced to Tyus Jones - current Minnesota Timberwolves point guard and hero of Duke’s most recent championship in 2015. Tatum is no point guard, but, like Jones, he is a freshman gaining confidence at the right time. With the prototypical skill set of an NBA small forward, Tatum can take over a college game by manhandling smaller, weaker defenders in the post and out-crafting bigger foes in the mid-range and on the perimeter. He’s not the fastest but he’s crafty, and can use his size and shooting touch to cash in sneakily when provided even an inch of space. Plus, he’s got a knack for the big shot.

No matter the postseason outcome, Tatum is a lock to be picked within the top 15 of the upcoming NBA draft. He averages 16.1 points per game, 7.4 rebounds and holds a 36 percent shooting mark from 3-point range; he’s the second-ranked player at his position, behind Kansas’ Josh Jackson.

Oddly though, as Fraschilla notes, with Kennard, Allen and Jackson all battling for ball possession on the perimeter, the Blue Devils might need Tatum to play the “big man in a ‘small ball’ lineup.” Tatum’s versatility down low would provide the guards more room to work outside and match Tatum with a taller, slow-footed defender, a contrast that will see him working around the basket but also allow him to outrun tired defenders for 3-point daggers.

Either that, or just get the hell out of his way. Duke has only a few more weeks with a future superstar. It’s time to ride him to the title.

PART OF A SPECIAL SERIES FROM OZY
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