By John Hooper
Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson have a lot of similarities on the surface. Both were in the national spotlight this season as freshman after being ranked as top three recruits in the 2016 class. Both are listed at 6'8" and 205 pounds. Even their per game stats were similar with Tatum putting up a line of 17/7/2/1/1 and Jackson a 16/7/3/1/2 line. Now they're both top five prospects heading into the NBA Draft.
Just like our head to head comparison of De'Aaron Fox and Lonzo Ball, we're going go category by category using the results from our algorithm to help us paint the picture of what makes these two players different and who we'd take first.
Jackson averaged more points per 100 possessions than Tatum and had a slightly higher usage rate, so it was a surprise that Tatum's grade of 80.7 was significantly higher than Jackson's of 68.7 for scoring potential.
So what drove Tatum's higher score? One part of it is how much better he was at racking up points at the free throw line. Per 100 possessions, Tatum averaged 7.0 made free throws to Jackson's 5.1. The ironic thing is that Jackson actually got to the line more often, but the abysmal 56.6% he shot there made free throws a less reliable source of points for him.
The other main data point that drove Jackson's lower scoring grade is something that will be a theme throughout the comparison - Jackson is more than a year older than Tatum. Yes, both players were in their freshman year this season, but how much better could Tatum's numbers have been if he had spent an additional year honing his game at a prep school before playing at Duke?
Expect Tatum to be a player who averages 21-23 points per game at his peak and Jackson to be in the 16-18 points per game range.
It's well known that Jackson struggled with his jump shot this year. He finished the year strong but it was to be expected that his shooting potential score of 64.3 would be a weak point of his profile. Tatum again performed surprisingly well with an excellent score of 86.1, which placed him sixth out of the sixty-five small forwards in our database for his shooting ability.
Again, free throw shooting played a major role in separating the two players. Jackson was the second worst out of the small forward group in free throw percentage while Tatum was fourth best. The free throw line is where much of the situational noise of shooting is stripped away and the truth about a player's skill is revealed.
When comparing how each player's jump shooting form looks today, it's easy to see that Jackson has a number of kinks he needs to iron out while Tatum has a smoother release. Both players have work to do here, but Jackson has further to go to become a consistently good shooter. Look for Jackson to eventually become a 32%-35% guy and Tatum a 39%-42% guy from deep in the NBA, with Tatum shooting a much higher volume.
Neither player performed well in the passing potential category, with Jackson scoring a 53.7 and Tatum a 46.8, putting them at 40th and 56th out of the 65 small forwards, respectively.
Jackson actually had the eighth most assists per 100 possessions, but also had the sixth most turnovers in the group. Both players had poor numbers when looking at their personal offensive rating compared to their team's overall offensive rating, which is a bit of a red flag for both. For Tatum, having a rating that was 4.3 points lower than Duke's overall rating may be an indicator that the isolation-heavy play that he's known for outweighed his individual scoring contributions. For Jackson, having a rating 4.5 points lower than Kansas's overall rating is likely due to a combination of frequently turning the ball over and his reputation as a non-shooter allowing opposing defenses to pack the paint.
I expected the defensive potential category to be an easy victory for Jackson but Tatum again scored surprisingly well here to keep it close. Jackson's score of 90.4 was the fifth best of the sixty-five small forwards while Tatum's 83.1 was still far above average, coming in at twelfth best.
The players had nearly identical numbers for blocks per 100 possessions and also fared similarly on the personal defensive rating versus team defensive rating comparison, ranking in the 12-16 range for both metrics. Jackson did outperform Tatum with the number of steals he was able to rack up per 100 possessions, coming in at tenth in the small forward group to Tatum's twenty-ninth.
Tatum gets a bad rap as a defender with people citing his average athleticism as a death knell. His defensive rating was 2.6 points better than Duke's overall rating, indicating a high level of awareness on defense. His mark here was especially impressive considering his youth and the high level of competition he faced. Don't sleep on Jayson Tatum as a defender!
Both players graded out in the top twelve for rebounding in the small forward group, with Jackson coming out on top, 77.6 to 75.0. One thing to note is that a much higher proportion of Jackson's rebounds came on the offensive end (31.3%) compared to Tatum's (18.3%). I'm calling this category a draw, but my personal preference is for a strong defensive rebounder who can end an opponent's possession. Look for both to average 6-7 rebounds per game in the NBA.
Jackson won three of the five categories, but Tatum has the higher overall grade of 92.4 in our model. When you look at the slash lines that we're projecting for the two players next to each other, Tatum's forecasted 22/7/3 line is more impressive that Jackson's 17/7/4 line. Jackson's superior defense should also be factored in, but so should Tatum's higher likelihood of being a knockdown three-point shooter.
So who do the two players compare most closely to in recent NBA history?
My initial answer for Tatum was Paul George. Both are wiry perimeter players who take and make a high number of tough isolation shots. George has averaged 23/7/4 since coming back from his gruesome leg injury, which is right where I expect Tatum to end up. I've since moved away from this comparison because I can't see Tatum guarding a player of Lebron James' ilk as well as Paul does simply because Tatum's not the athlete that George is. Instead, I'm stealing Bill Simmons' comparison of Danny Granger. Like Granger, expect Tatum to be a 20+ points per game scorer and a fringe all-star.
I've also changed my Jackson comparison recently. I originally projected him as another Shawn Marion - a great defender who filled up the stat sheet despite funky shooting form - but Jackson isn't the rebounder that Marion was. The player who I'm now expecting Jackson to be most like is Gerald Wallace, an impactful player whose offensive game eventually caught up to his high-level athleticism. At the end of the day, Jackson's future really depends on how much he can improve as a shooter, because if he makes a Kawhi-like jump, he'll be a perennial all-star. Also of note is how similar Jackson's profile is to Justise Winslow's in our algorithm.
I'm taking Tatum before Jackson. Jackson has a higher ceiling, but Tatum is more likely to reach his.