Jayson Tatum’s Move to Power Forward Sparked Duke

Posted by Charlie Maikis on February 22nd, 2017

Duke entered this season with high expectations in large part because of several highly-regarded incoming freshmen. Among those touted newcomers was forward Jayson Tatum, a game-changing talent who is poised to become a high-lottery selection in June. Tatum was expected to contribute immediately, in much the same way that recent star Duke freshmen Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Brandon Ingram have done. The beginning of his tenure in Durham, though, was anything but smooth. Because of Duke’s abundance of more traditional big men like Amile Jefferson, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, Tatum often found himself on the floor with two other interior players. For a player with legitimate perimeter capabilities but also a preference for operating around the rim, the cramped spacing and clogged driving lanes resulting from this arrangement inhibited both his production as well as Duke’s offense.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum had 19 points and seven rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 99-94 weekend victory over Wake Forest. (Associated Press)

Since a January 23 Big Monday home loss to NC State, Duke’s season has completely turned around. Tatum became the starting power forward alongside Jefferson and a three-guard backcourt in the very next game against Wake Forest, and Duke has won seven straight entering tonight’s game at Syracuse (including six victories against KenPom top-40 units). Tatum followed up his ascent to the starting five with the best game of his young career against Notre Dame a few days later, contributing a double-double of 19 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. The Irish had considerable trouble defending the freshman, as he proved too strong for VJ Beachem and too quick for Bonzie Colson. Many of his looks came from isolations. With the guards spotting up in positions around the perimeter, Tatum was able to utilize a mid-range post-up and bully his way to the rim without fear of help defense recovering quickly enough. Per Synergy Sports, he scored six points on six isolation plays in that game, a solid number for a relatively inefficient play type.

Since that stellar outing against Notre Dame, Tatum has played more than 80 percent of the available minutes in his new role at the four. He has continued to score and rebound well (16.3 PPG and 7.9 RPG in his last seven starts), but he has also flashed a newfound confidence from behind the arc that has resulted in making a blistering 58 percent of his three-point attempts over the last five games (compared with 38.9 percent on the season). Duke’s new lineup configuration has also resulted in a superb 1.21 points per possession over the last seven games (for greater context, UCLA currently leads college basketball at 1.21 PPP for the entire season). Tatum’s ability to step out and stretch the floor has increasingly opened driving lanes for wings like Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen. With so much offensive talent on the floor, a defender helping means that an equally potent scorer is open somewhere else. This kind of Sophie’s choice puts tremendous stress on a defense over the course of a game, helping the Blue Devils find a number of quality looks that were not always there earlier this season.

As this lineup continues to get comfortable, Duke should only see greater efficiency from this small-ball lineup. While such an arrangement only allows two big men to earn significant minutes — and correspondingly relegating the nation’s #2 and #11 incoming recruits, Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, to significant time on the bench, it has certainly worked so far. With only four games remaining in the regular season, the Blue Devils’ starters need as many minutes together as possible to prepare for a postseason run. Based on the success Tatum’s new role has spurred, there’s reason to expect continued heavy doses of the talented Duke freshman at the power forward slot the rest of the way.

Charlie Maikis (15 Posts)

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