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.
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.