Is Jayson Tatum the Next Fantasy Superstar?

Mike Gallagher
Rotoworld

We're back for part five of Deep Dives. If you missed it, check out Kyrie Irving (link here), Kevin Durant (link here), John Wall (link here) and Jonathan Isaac (link here) for plenty of stats and an idea of when you might want to take them in drafts. You might have noticed that the players covered so far have some injury concerns right now, but Tatum is on the other end of the spectrum with top-notch durability so far in his career. And he's still only 17 years old! Just kidding, of course. I spend a lot of time talking about Tatum on the Rotoworld Podcast, so I wanted to dive in on him to solidify my stance. Here we go.

Jayson Tatum had quite the 2019-20 with career-high averages in minutes, points, boards, assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers with several of those not being close.  His additional 3.5 minutes per game in 2019-20 compared to 2018-19 did help a bit, but he still would’ve crushed in per-minute stats in all stats mentioned above except blocks and boards (only a slight edge there). He was coming off an Eastern Conference Player of the Month award in February as one of the hottest players in fantasy hoops just as we went on hiatus. Here’s a snapshot of his career stats over three seasons (via NBA.com, all stats in column via NBA.com/stats unless noted).

Tatum also crushed his career-high FTA per game last year while his usage rate had an enormous boost from 21.8 in 2018-19 to 27.9 in 2019-20. Over the last two months, Tatum averaged 27.9 points, 7.3 boards, 3.1 dimes, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks and 3.7 treys on a 49/46/75 shooting line. In those 23 games, those numbers made him a top-four player per game in nine-category leagues among those with 10-plus games played (Kawhi, Dame, AD). Prior to that, he was sitting at 31st per game in nine cat per game over his first 36. We’ll get to the specifics on that on-fire stretch a little later, but let’s take a look at his profile overall.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, Tatum is the first player in this Deep Dives series without injury concerns right now.  He has been very durable in his career with five games missed in 2019-20, three games missed in 2018-19, and just two games missed in his 2017-18 rookie season.

In 2019-20, he missed three games for a right groin strain, one for an illness, and one for a sore right knee (back-to-back set). In 2018-19, he missed the meaningless season finale for a shin issue, a back issue cost him one game in March (B2B), and a sore right shoulder cost him a game in March. As a rookie, he missed the season finale for rest and Apr. 6 for rest, as well.

That’s extremely impressive. Besides that groin issue, there’s only one other game in his career he missed that wasn’t either rest, a back-to-back set, or in a season finale. And don't forget Tatum's groin issue looked like it was going to keep him out for a long while, so getting back so quickly is a positive. His history makes him one of the most durable players you can take outside the top six (Bam Adebayo really the only other early-round guy in the convo). Even if you stop reading this column here, that’s basically enough to call him a top-15 player in eight- and nine-category leagues, but we’ll go a little deeper.

On top of Tatum’s massive 6.1 usage rate boost, he was still more efficient at 56.2 TS% in 2019-20 from his 54.7 TS% in 2018-19. He was unassisted on 52.5% of his makes in 2019-20 from just 41.4% in 2018-19 and 34.0% as a rookie. In 2019-20, the only other 30-plus minutes-per-game SF/PFs with a higher unassisted percentage were LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Digging a tad deeper there, he was unassisted on 44.3% of his 3-pointers, which is only topped by LeBron James among SF/PFs at 30-plus MPG.

That leads us to one of his biggest improvements in 2019-20: pullups. Back in the preseason for the 2018-19 season, you might remember the buzz of Tatum learning some mid-range shots from Kobe Bryant (RIP), and it proved to be a bit of a setback for Tatum as his efficiency dropped. In 2018-19, he had just a 39.9 eFG% on pullups (36.8% on twos, 32.4% on threes), but he upped those shots to 50.3 eFG% in 2019-20 (39.3% on twos, 39.9% on threes; rookie year was 43.8 eFG% on lighter volume, 43.0% on twos, 31.0% on threes). If you’re a big unassisted guy, you have to make hay on pull-ups.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of his improvement that shows some sustainability is how he traded off mid-range shots for some 3-pointers. In 2018-19, he had a whopping 26.6% of his shots come from the mid-range at just a 36.6 FG% with 29.0% of his shots coming from beyond the arc, but in 2019-20 the mid-range distribution dropped to just 16.3% at a 37.6 FG% with 37.2% of his shots coming from deep. Tatum’s shots at the rim were at about 30% in each of the last two seasons and he actually shot it worse in 2019-20 at 59.3% (63.1% in 2018-19), so there’s even some room for improvement there (he does improve over time, more on that later).

Tatum’s fantasy game went to the next level thanks to his 2.8 treys per game with only minimal drop off in FG%. Tatum has been fantastic as a wide-open shooter throughout his career, but he really improved last year when he wasn’t wide open. Here’s a look at his 3-point percentage when he’s wide open (defender six-plus feet away), when he’s not wide open, and the percentage of his 3-pointers that are coming when he’s wide open.

The biggest trend here is that he’s not getting nearly as many clean looks from deep as his career has gone on. That’s certainly to be expected for a guy who is highly unassisted with 7.1 3PA per game overall. The other part that really shows up is that he bounced back on non-wide-open treys in 2019-20 from a major dip in 2018-19. Tatum has always been a stellar shooter when open and also had a solid improvement there, too.

Tatum also became one of the better drivers among non-guards last year. He was at 11.0 per game to basically double his 5.6 drives per game in 2018-19 (5.7 as a rookie). He also had no interest in dishing at just 2.5 passes off drives, which is by far the lowest among the 39 players with 11-plus drives per game (Zach LaVine 3.8). In a Brad Stevens offense, that’s encouraging to see him be so scoring dependent on big drives volume. It worked, so it should be a big part of the 2020-21 offense again.

The only disappointing part of Tatum’s fantasy season was dropping to 80.6 FT% from his 85.5% in 2018-19. He was actually rolling to start the year and was right on pace at 85.5% in his first 38 games, but fell to just 74.8% over his final 21. When he was cooling off at the line, he was slightly better on the road, but the biggest split was he struggled in the first half at 68.1% compared to 79.7% in the second half. In 2018-19, he was worse in the first half again (81.1 in first, 87.9% in second half), but he was better in the first half in his rookie season. Plus, over the course of the 2019-20 season, he was better in each of the quarters as the game went on (worst quarter was first, best was fourth, etc.). It’s a little encouraging that he was struggling earlier in the game instead of getting some tired legs later from the usage bump. He might be back in the 85-86 range next season.

Tatum upping his steals to 1.4 per game also elevated his fantasy value after 1.1 per game in 2018-19. Minutes helped a tad, but he was still 0.3 steals per 36 better in 2019-20. In 2019-20, 67.5% of his steals came off bad passes, which is slightly down from 72.6% in 2018-19 and 70.0% as a rookie. Not much there. However, he was better at steals by 0.6 per 36 when he played next to Gordon Hayward (Tatum also better with Kemba Walker, Daniel Theis or Marcus Smart all at 0.3 each). Tatum’s career-high in boards and blocks were mostly about the minutes increase with only 0.1 blocks per 36 and 0.4 boards per 36 increases last year.

OK, so how about that top-four finish over his last 23? He really upped his efficiency at 61.1 TS% with a 29.6 usage rate. In his first 36, he was nowhere close with a 26.8 usage rate and a 52.6 TS%, but actually Jaylen had a higher usage rate when Tatum was rolling (25.3) compared to earlier (24.0) -- Hayward around 20 in each. Of course, Kemba Walker's usage was a little higher while Tatum was rolling at 26.4 compared to 27.8 before that. Not much, though.

Kemba did miss nine of the games when Tatum was cruising, and it wasn’t like a night-and-day difference with Tatum at 26.2 points per 36 with Kemba while rolling (301 minutes) and 29.8 points per 36 without him (511 minutes). In this sample, Tatum also shot the ball great with Kemba at a 62.0 eFG% compared to a solid 55.8 eFG% without him, so there was a bit of efficiency for usage tradeoff (31.6 without, 25.9 with). Tatum was also extremely efficient at the paint when Kemba was out there in this span at 63.2% compared to just 49.3% without him -- was at about 50% of his twos coming at the rim in both splits. Stars are always going to have some usage hits when next to the other top option, but Tatum still performing more efficiently as a scorer next to Kemba is encouraging.

Tatum’s drives did go up a bit during the hot stretch and he barely passed out of it at just 20.3%, which is easily the lowest over that span among the 57 players with nine-plus drives per game (Donovan Mitchell at 25.4%). He was also one of just seven players with more than 3.0 FTA off drives per game (Harden, Beal, Fox, Dinwiddie, Butler, DeRozan), and 10.1 points per game came off drives with the guys ahead of him all at 17-plus drives per game, too. It was great to see that trend up with driving to the basket generally leading to better offensive production.

Moving to his touches, there really wasn’t much of a difference with only a 2.8 touch per game boost and 1.5 in the frontcourt. The only real difference was that he upped his time of possession to 3.9 minutes per game while he was hot compared to 3.1. Somewhat surprisingly, Tatum’s time of possession per game without Kemba for the first multi-game stint was 3.8, but it surged to 5.0 in the last six games Kemba was hurting (an active Kemba had minutes cap for one of those; Tatum had 6.1 minutes in final game sans Kemba).

A big area of improvement for Fuego Tatum was at the rim. Before he caught fire, he sat at 55.8% at the rim in his first 36, but took a huge leap to 64.1% after Jan. 11 (similar distribution). The biggest improvement was that he was deadly when left open. In his first 36, he had a 56.3 eFG% when left open. In the hot stretch, he was at an absurd 87.2 eFG% in a 43-shot sample (1.9 per game). That’s obviously not sustainable, but good grief that’s wild.

Tatum also turned into one of the best pullup shooters in the league over his hot streak. In his first 36, he was OK at a 44.3 eFG% (35.1% on threes, 36.1% on twos). In his last 23, he had a stellar 58.4 eFG% on pullups and 2.7 treys made per game. Only James Harden (3.0) and Damian Lillard (3.2) had more per game, and his 58.4 eFG% on pullups was second in the league among the 61 players with at least 100 attempts (the homie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander just ahead at 58.7). Goodness gracious great balls of fire.

Before I started writing this, I had Tatum firmly at nine in nine-cat leagues and 10 eight-category fantasy leagues. There were a handful of pleasant surprises with Tatum only having two non-rest/B2B stints in the sidelines in his career (four games total) as really the highlight. You really want your early-round picks in fantasy to get to 75 games and be out there down the stretch. It was very encouraging to see that his smash mode wasn’t tied too much to Kemba Walker not being on the floor, and obviously his nuclear shooting was amazing at so many levels. Plus, you have to love the improved shot selection on how he really cut down on mid-range shooting. Most importantly, he’s going to be on a playoff team and he’s just 22 years old.

I bumped him up to seven in nine-cat leagues and eight in eight-cat leagues. Tatum has shown in a decent 23-game sample that he has just as much upside as Luka Doncic, and Tatum’s floor is way more attractive than Steph’s ceiling and lower floor at age 32. If I pick after nine in standard-style formats, I plan to have a whole lot of Tatum in my life.

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