Analysis: Polish versus Upside with Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson

The Sacramento Kings find themselves in an interesting spot this Thursday. With the 76ers trading for the first pick, their ability to trade up seems far slimmer, while the uncertainty behind who they’ll be able to select at five has only grown.

The Boston Celtics will likely be deciding between either Jayson Tatum or Josh Jackson with the third overall pick, while Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough recently stated that his team plans to go for the “best player available” at four.

That could mean that Phoenix reaches for a point guard, potentially taking De’Aaron Fox off the board. Should that be the case, the Kings’ brass may be forced to take the Celtics’ leftovers — either Jackson or Tatum.

Regardless of which one is available, the value goes without saying. Both boast star-caliber upside in one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory, while their work ethic, albeit through different avenues, has been well documented between the both of them.

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There are some considerable differences in their game, though, as well as how they translate to the league. When deciphering between which one fits Sacramento best, it comes down to a myriad of contributing factors.

First and foremost, one must look at their long-term projections. While Tatum is undeniably skilled and a far more polished offensive piece, Jackson’s athletic tools are superior in every facet. With the Kings being a relatively clean slate in regards to team building, fit is far from an issue. It’s about determining upside and the manner in which this Kings team wants to build, as well as the types of players they want to build around.

Tatum has all the signs of the better first year player. His versatility as a scorer will allow him to carry the bulk of a team’s offensive load from day one, while his improvements elsewhere should help him retain control when transitioning to the next level.

The freshman ended his career on a high note at Duke, running through the ACC Tournament at a near-MVP worthy level while carrying that into Duke’s short run afterword’s in March Madness.

Tatum cleaned up his ball handling a bit, which led to a decrease in turnovers and a much higher comfort level when working within the Blue Devils’ isolation-heavy offense.

He’s already the best pure scorer in this year’s class between the forward spots, bringing an old-school game with an almost Carmelo Anthony-esque feel to it. He has several go-to moves he can break out from mid-range, while his post repertoire was underutilized-but-impressive during his short stint under Mike Krzyzewski. What he lacks in elite burst, he makes up for with long strides and gorgeous fluidity.

He glides down the lane on drives to the rim, while his finishing touch is already advanced for a player his age. That silkiness translates to his isolation game, where his high release and advanced footwork allows him to generate space on a dime.

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Perhaps the only concern with Tatum as a scorer was his 3-point shooting, as he hit at just 34.2 percent from that range last season. While his mechanics seem translatable, it wasn’t always a shot he seemed fully comfortable taking. Perhaps in a more familiar system with an offseason that’s not cut short by injury, Tatum can adjust that and bring his percentages to where they should lie by next season.

If that shot does translate, though — which it most definitely should — Tatum’s offensive game should find a niche almost regardless of system. The Kings, boasting another high-octane scorer in Buddy Hield on the perimeter, could offer Tatum a solid running mate to begin his career.

On the opposing side of that spectrum is Jackson. A skilled playmaker and a far more well-rounded player than most hyper athletic forwards his age. Jackson still has some considerable holes to fill, but his defensive potential and offensive versatility is ideally among the highest in this year’s class. There has to be some qualms when looking at him as a prospect.

Jackson’s shot from deep is the foremost issue in his arsenal. While he shot a respectable 37.8 percent from deep — which actually eclipses Tatum’s percentages — that number is easily inflated.

Not only did he play in a system that afforded him more open looks from deep, but he took them in far lesser volume. He also has a noticeable hitch in his release point, and his poor free throw percentage (56.6 percent) only backs up the concerns.

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When considering the fact that the NBA 3-point line is extended well past that of collegiate ball, it’s imperative that Jackson works to improve that shot. While he still has all the tools requisite of a successful NBA player, it’s difficult to maximize one’s talent without a serviceable shot from deep.

The rest of Jackson’s game is as upside-laden as any prospect we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons. He has the size to guard multiple positions across the perimeter, while his ball handling and versatility as a secondary initiator affords the team that drafts him a great deal of flexibility on that side of the ball.

Although his defensive fundamentals are far from refined, he has the hustle needed to overcome those more coachable issues as well. His quickness allows him to gash through passing lanes and turn turnovers into fast break opportunities, while his bounciness around the rim also brings some potential as a weak side shot blocker. He already has the ability to switch around the floor and blow up plays with ease. At this stage in his development, it comes down to focus on the most basic facets of defense more so than anything else.

Jackson’s offense is, in many ways, similar. He has the ability to blow it up at any time, throwing down awe-inspiring alley-oops and punishing defenders on a regular basis during his brief time at Kansas.

His potential in the pick-and-roll will also evolve with the improvement of his shooting touch, while his first step allows him to get by defenders and into the teeth of the defense with ease.

It’s then a matter of limiting the ill-advised passes and poorly-timed shots that work against all the other benefits he brings to the table on that end of the floor.

The contrasts in these two players make the Kings’ situation especially difficult. If either of them is available, they’ll likely have no say in which one it is. That makes this less of a decision and more of an experiment.

It’s an experiment in which Sacramento can test the developmental patterns of two entirely different archetypes against the modern trends of today’s NBA.

Jackson has a clearly defined niche alongside Hield, where he can help carry the playmaking load while defending the strongest of the two wing threats for a Kings team that’s quietly establishing a strong foundation on that side of the ball. He doesn’t, however, give the Kings a legitimate go-to scoring option — something they don’t necessarily have as it currently stands.

[Video Breakdown: Focusing on the Strengths and Weaknesses of Jayson Tatum]

Tatum does give them a go-to option, all while relieving a great deal of offensive pressure elsewhere in the rotation. His ceiling is markedly lower than Jackson’s, though, as his athletic tools cap his defensive upside while his less advanced instincts limit the expansiveness of his passing skills. He’s primarily a scorer, and players of that ilk may have a more difficult route towards prolonged success in today’s league.

When looking at these two in a vacuum, Jackson holds the upper ground as a prospect. His defensive chops and looming offensive potential simply make his overarching package too difficult to pass on.

While not a reliable facet of his game now, any developments as an isolation scorer or a spot-up shooter would cause Jackson’s stock to soar. He’s already on track to be an elite defender, while his feel for the game should give him some of the league’s more advanced instincts at his position in time.

There is a chance, though, that Jackson’s personal issues — something that runs counter to Vlade Divac’s proposed cultural overhaul during the aftermath of the DeMarcus Cousins deal — could be a turn-off for the Kings’ front office. Tatum also gives them more on day one, while his ability to carry the scoring load could be viewed as a safer bet than the development of somebody whose primary weakness is shooting in a league predicated on that very skill.

This draft will set the basis for the Kings’ development moving forward, and Tatum and Jackson present two paths that diverge at a very key point in the determination of team identity.

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Christopher Kline on Twitter
Christopher Kline
Special Contributor to Cowbell Kingdom. You can follow the rest of his work on The Sixer Sense and 16 Wins A Ring.

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