When it comes to powerhouses in basketball, a few teams come to mind. The Lakers, Celtics, Spurs, and Bulls are all teams that basketball fans think of. Now when we look at the NCAA, Kentucky, North Carolina, and of course Duke are known as the best college basketball programs there are. Duke stands out as they are revered as the best basketball program in all of college sports, in a historical aspect. Many great and talented players have come out of Duke. Some performed really well in the NBA, and others just didn’t pan out the way people expected them to. Jayson Tatum is one of those amazing Duke players making their mark in the NBA. After being selected to his first All Star game this season at the young age of 21, there are few questions that come to mind. Can Jayson Tatum be the greatest player to come out of Duke?
Before we answer this question, we have to figure out who are the greatest players to come out of Duke? Christian Laettner is a Duke great, but his NBA career wasn’t anything special. A player that many people view as the greatest player to come out of Duke is Tatum’s former teammate; Kyrie Irving himself.
Despite only playing 11 games with Duke, Irving was still drafted 1st overall in the 2011 NBA draft. In those 11 games he played with Duke he averaged 17.5 PTS, 3.4 REB, and 4.3 AST. Once drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers he began to make a major impact in his rookie year. Fans were amazed at his dazzling ball handling skills, and absurd finishes around the rim. In a way mainstreaming the use of “Jelly” before “Jelly” was a thing.
Kyrie made his first all star team in 2013, and won the All Star MVP in 2014. We were able to fully see the depths of Kyrie’s game when LeBron came back to Cleveland. The duo of LeBron and Kyrie turned out to be one the most dynamic duos in NBA history. Between 2015 to 2017 the Cavs were in the Finals every year. As NBA fans we were blessed to witness the rivalry between the Warriors and the Cavs. Soon after Kyrie went to the Celtics, but wasn’t able to fully fit in Boston. He is currently with the Brooklyn Nets, and once KD becomes healthy, he and Kyrie are going to be a problem for the NBA.
Kyrie averages 22.4 PTS, 3.7 REB, and 5.7 AST over his career in the NBA so far. Reaching Kyrie’s stature isn’t as hard as people think. Jayson Tatum has only shown glimpses of the NBA player he WILL become. Notice the keyword will, because it is going to happen.
Tatum is only in his third year and is currently averaging 22.9 PTS, 7 REB, 2.9 AST per contest this season. Already cracking the All Star team this season, it is a lock that Tatum will continue to assert his dominance in the years to come. Since the All Star game he has only gotten better. Since the All-Star game Tatum is averaging 34.5 PPG, 8 REB, and 2.5 AST. Quickly becoming Boston’s number one option, and flourishing to the player we all envisioned he would be after his stellar rookie season.
The one thing that people will demand out of Tatum, in order for him to be perceived as a better player than Kyrie, is the ability to win. We’ve seen the success he had in his first season. Leading the Kyrie/Hayward-less Celtics to the Conference Finals, and pushing LeBron’s Cavs to 7 games. Coming off a disappointing season in general for the Celtics last year, Tatum will be looking to continue to assert himself amongst the greats in the postseason. The playoffs are where legends are born, and after Kyrie’s shot against the Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, his is cemented. Tatum will need to take over games when called upon. Something he has been able to do, especially after training one summer with the late great Kobe Bryant. Harnessing the true values of the “Mamba Mentality”. Once he is able to do that on the big stage, fans, media, and NBA personnel will then begin to say Tatum’s name when talking about the Blue Devil greats.
We still have to answer the question though? Will he be the greatest to come out of Duke? We have to weigh the negatives too. He definitely has the potential no doubt about it, but health is going to be a major factor on that being a possibility. A prime example of a player from Duke who would’ve been the best player to come out of there (although some people regard him as the best anyways), but injuries derailed him, is Grant Hill.
One of the most promising and talented players the league has ever seen, but his greatness was minimized by the nagging injuries that followed him his entire career. With all that being said he was still able to make the Basketball Hall of Fame. Jayson Tatum if injuries become a problem in the future could suffer the same fate. Something he hasn’t shown one bit in his early career. Missing no more than 5 games in the full seasons he’s played so far. But we have to look at every angle possible.
We aren’t talking about just potential here because it’s obvious Tatum has the potential. Andrew Wiggins still has potential to be an amazing NBA player, but work ethic, determination, and all the gritty things come into play, when dividing the good with the great. Tatum has continued to make significant jumps every season. Not just in his game on the court, but also in things that aren’t measured by stats.
Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, said this about Tatum before the start of the season, “I don’t want to say that it’s too different, but I see a different assertiveness in the right things. He’s practiced really hard, made a conscious effort to take the right shots and not be any less aggressive. He’s still really aggressive.” Jayson Tatum has also taken a jump mentally. Realizing that it isn’t just scoring that he can do to change the game. Playmaking, rebounding, defense, all areas that Tatum has improved in. All being reasons as to why he became an All Star this year, and hopefully many more years to come as well.
Jayson is also battling with other current NBA players who have the potential of being the best NBA player out of Duke. One being another first time All Star this season, Brandon Ingram. Also his teammate Zion Williamson. It’s hard to compare Brandon Ingram to Tatum because we have such a small sample size of the new and improved Brandon Ingram. Ingram is averaging 24.5 PPG, 6.3 REB, 4.3 AST this season. But since Zion has returned for the Pelicans, his averages have dropped to 20.3 PTS, 4.6 REB, and 4.0 AST per game. There is just not enough body of work to compare Ingram to Tatum. Zion is a whole other beast. He will definitely be in the discussion of the best NBA player to come out of Duke, but injuries are going to be a distraction. If he’s able to be healthy, then the question becomes even harder.
Jayson Tatum has 2 players to compete with, one being Kyrie Irving, someone who is still building on his legacy, and Grant Hill, a player whose legacy is cemented in history. Jayson Tatum has more than a sufficient skillset to be the best NBA player Duke has ever seen. And potentially Zion as well. With him only being 21, we will have to get ready to witness his reign for a very long time. Some people might find this discussion absurd, but revisiting this question in 10 years might not be so bad.