The Philadelphia 76ers drafting Jayson Tatum would have made all the sense in the world. They missed out and the Boston Celtics got him instead.
The 2016-2017 season was unkind to the Philadelphia 76ers. 2016 first overall pick Ben Simmons was forced to essentially redshirt his rookie year due to a foot injury during a team scrimmage, effectively ending his highly anticipated rookie season before it could even begin.
The oft-injured Joel Embiid was limited to 31 games in his first season on the court since being drafted third overall in 2014, and former lottery picks Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel also struggled to stay healthy and accept their roles within the team.
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Mired in dysfunction, the Sixers hobbled across the finish line and ended the 2016-2017 NBA campaign with an abysmal 28-54 record. Once again, finding themselves in the NBA Draft Lottery sweepstakes for the sixth time since 2010, this time they walked away with the third overall pick.
Days leading up to the 2017 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers executed a trade with the Boston Celtics for the first overall pick. The Sixers and Celtics swapped 2017 first-round picks, and Philly sent an additional future first-round pick as well.
The Sixers initially used this pick to draft the athletic guard Markelle Fultz out of Washington. A mysterious shoulder injury limited Fultz to 14 less than stellar games his rookie year. He was eventually traded to the Orlando Magic for Jonathan Simmons and a 2020 second-round pick before the 2019 trade deadline.
In hindsight, it is easy to say that drafting Jayson Tatum with the first overall pick was the most logical decision. But even in the weeks leading up to the draft, I felt the best prospects in the draft were De’Aaron Fox (drafted fifth overall), Jayson Tatum, and Bam Adebayo (drafted 14th overall).
It’s also worth noting that Celtics general manager Danny Ainge has said he was only willing to trade down because he was confident the Sixers and Los Angeles Lakers were going to draft Fulz and Lonzo Ball, respectively, and Tatum would still be available at three.
With Embiid, Okafor, and Noel already on the roster, there was no need for the Philadelphia 76ers to go after another big man in Adebayo. Though you could see the upside, Fox’s talent was too raw at the time, which leaves Tatum as the most logical and practical choice among the three.
While discussing the Tatum pick in his post-draft analysis for SI.com, Jeremy Woo of Sports Illustrated said, “He has a chance to end up the best scorer in this class when it’s all said and done.”
Standing at approximately 6’8″ with a 6’11” wingspan is a capable and willing defender. His ability to score from inside the paint and his efficient three-point shooting, coupled with his ability to defend multiple positions, is ideal for today’s game and would allow him to indefectibly fit in with virtually any roster and coaching system.
He ranked third in his high school recruiting class, and in his lone season at Duke, Tatum averaged 16.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game while posting shooting splits of .452/.342/.849 through 29 games. Tatum accomplished this as a freshman and playing second fiddle to sophomore shooting specialist, Luke Kennard.
Through his first two-plus years in the NBA, Tatum has shown he can handle the pressures of playing for a historic franchise in a big media market, displayed strong leadership skills, and has proven he is willing to learn and continue to find ways to improve. Each year his production increases across the board.
Playing for a loaded Celtics that just added ball-dominant point guard, Kyrie Irving, Tatum would go on to have a solid rookie campaign posting 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.0 steals per game. He was never really in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, but it was in the playoffs, and in the absence of Irving that Tatum began to hit his stride and break-out in a significant way.
Tatum increased his scoring output in the postseason from 13.9 to 18.5 points, and his assists increased from 1.6 to 2.7 per game as well, while keeping his field goal percentage slightly above 47, and leading the Celtics to within one game of the NBA finals.
In his third year in the NBA, acting as the de facto offensive leader for the Celtics, Jayson Tatum ranks second on the team in rebounds (7.1) and steals (1.4) per game, and his 23.6 points per game, ranks first on the roster and 16th leaguewide. He also ranks first on the Celtics in field goals made, field goals attempted, and minutes played per game.
Tatum’s versatility on offense and defense, in addition to his efficiency from outside, would have fit perfectly alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. With Tatum in the fold, current Sixers general manager Elton Brand likely would not have felt so inclined to trade for Tobias Harris or All-Star Jimmy Butler during the 2018-2019 season and instead continue to surround the budding stars with shooters and role-players under team-friendly contracts.
Though the Sixers would go on to win 52 games the following season, I can’t help but wonder what they could have accomplished had they gotten some meaningful contributions from their first overall pick.
If the Sixers had drafted Tatum in 2017, would they still lose in the second round of the playoffs, or do they push King James to the brink of elimination in the Conference Finals? Maybe Kawhi Leonard never gets a chance to hit that gutwrenching buzzer-beater in 2018.
Perhaps, Jayson Tatum would have been the key to the Philadelphia 76ers unlocking their full potential.
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