It's not hype if you can do it, and Chaminade's Jayson Tatum can
ST. LOUIS -- If you're looking for the most entertaining basketball in the state these days, don't expect to find it at Mizzou Arena. Or Chaifetz Arena, JQH Arena, the Show Me Center or any other venue that hosts college basketball in Missouri.
Instead, for some must-see hoops, check out the small gym at Chaminade College Preparatory School, home court for one of the top high school teams in the land. The Red Devils boast a roster stocked with future college players who play hard and up-tempo and appear to enjoy passing as much as shooting.
The Red Devils also have Jayson Tatum. And Jayson Tatum just might end up as the best player to come out of St. Louis. As in ever, or at least since Ed Macauley was dominating at SLU High in the 1940s.
You don't have to tell me how outlandish such a proclamation sounds, either. It's high school. I get it. Hyping schoolboy players makes me uncomfortable, too.
But from everything I have seen, read and heard, Jayson Tatum is different. Like two NBA stars who came out of Chaminade, Bradley Beal and David Lee, he is the real deal, too.
"He's every bit as good as those guys were," says Gary Lee, who would know as well as anyone. He is a longtime fixture around the Chaminade program and the father of David Lee.
Tatum actually has more going for him than the two who came before. At 6-foot-9 (and possibly still growing), he is the same height as Lee but Tatum can play on the outside as well as the inside. While Tatum has four inches on Beal, his jumper and ball-handling skills are just as smooth.
Tatum, in fact, has no apparent weakness in his game, not on offense anyway. I haven't seen any in the three times I've watched him. He's averaging more than 28 points after going for at least 30 in his past six games. He's displayed NBA range as well as a soft touch on mid-range jumpers. He shot step-back jumpers, turnarounds and floaters. He drove right to the basket. He drove left to the basket. He threw on-the-money, half-court bounce passes off the dribble.
He rebounded, defended, sang the national anthem and swept the court during timeouts. OK, now I'm officially carried away, but suffice to say, he is worth the price of admission. Even though the hype machine has been building him up for years, I've come away more impressed each time I've seen him. That doesn't happen often.
When he had to step up his game in the second half to erase a big Vianney lead, Tatum scored 27 points and Chaminade won by 16. 'It's easy,' he says, without gloating.
The scouting reports ding Tatum for his lack of heft, and he will need to add weight as well as strength. His scouting report on nbadraft.net lists him at 195 pounds, and that might be generous. NFL linemen have thighs thicker than Tatum's waist. But adding pounds -- at the dinner table and in the weight room -- is far easier to do than to develop such advanced skills at his height. Besides, the times I've seen him, opponents didn't have great success using physical play to slow him. Whenever he has wanted to get to the basket, he has managed.
"I have to outthink guys and use my footwork and court awareness to get past them," Tatum says.
Adds Chaminade coach Frank Bennett: "He's very, very smart, very shifty."
And, oh yeah, all this and Tatum doesn't turn 17 until March 3.
Just as impressive as his game is his demeanor. Stuart Scott no doubt would have been able to use his favorite expression on Tatum. Yet as good as he knows he is, Tatum handles himself with humility and grace not often seen from pampered teenagers. His smile comes easily when he hangs around after games to have photos taken with young fans and to shake hands with adults.
Unlike so many in his chest-thumping era, when Tatum pulls off a remarkable move, he acts like he's done it before. He might punctuate a dunk with a tap to his chest and celebrate a 3-pointer with a yell and a hand signal. But really, these days, those kinds of antics are about like a nonchalant pat on the backside back in the day.
Tatum has no apparent weakness in his game, not on offense, anyway.
If Tatum ever wanted to talk up his game, he had the chance last week after a victory over conference rival Vianney. The Griffins, playing physically and shooting well, built an 11-point first-half lead on Chaminade before Tatum, who had four at the half, simply took over. Scoring at will, he put in 20 of Chaminade's 23 points in the third quarter to tie the game and ended up with 31 in what finished as a 16-point victory.
When I asked if his coach told him to step up or if he just did, Tatum did not gloat.
"In the first half, including myself, we didn't play too well," he said. "And to be a leader on this team, I had to pick it up if we wanted to win."
Is it really that easy?
"It's easy," he said, trying not to smile. "I've got guys on my team that can get me open and when I get double-teamed, I can find the open man and they hit the shots."
Indeed, Chaminade is not a one-man show. Another junior, 6-9 Tyler Cook, also has drawn the interest of numerous big-time schools. He is an explosive dunker and owns plenty of power to bang in the paint, though he lacks the all-around skills of Tatum.
I am not the only one on the Tatum bandwagon. Far from it. He was a key member of the US team that won the under-17 world championships last summer and is rated as the top junior in the country by ESPN. Virtually every college with a basketball team has shown interest, though he has whittled his choices to 10. They include bluebloods such as Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Arizona, North Carolina and Connecticut as well as the locals -- Saint Louis, Missouri and Illinois. Wake Forest, with new coach Danny Manning, has stayed in the mix, too.
Part of the fun of going to a Chaminade game, in fact, is to see if John Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self or some other big-name coach is sitting in the same stands. They often are, and they don't have to worry about scoring a ticket to get in.
More and more often, though, many of us do. After dealing with standing-room crowds ringing the gym during its holiday tournament, Chaminade started selling tickets in advance to home games. Both times they sold out before the day of the game. Next Friday's game against rival CBC has sold out in St. Charles. Chaminade also has played three games out of the area and has another coming Monday afternoon in Springfield, Mass., that will be televised on ESPNU.
Tatum might bring out some special shoes for that showcase game against a team from Fairfax, Va. Actually, he often does that. He sported a different style of Nike in each of the games I watched.
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How many pairs of shoes does he have, anyway?
"Hundred," he said, then recalculated. "A lot."
He says sometimes he chooses a pair to match his uniform.
"Sometimes, I like to be different."
He doesn't need shoes for that. His game sets him apart plenty, and makes Chaminade a team you don't want to miss.