NEW YORK—With a little more than 6:30 remaining in Tuesday’s game against Florida, Jayson Tatum created space with a step-back move and faded away over a Gator defender, swishing his fourth field goal of the night with ease.
Less than 45 seconds later, the 6-foot-8 forward returned to the same spot at Madison Square Garden for another isolation play in the mid-post area on the right side of the floor. Tatum took two dribbles, stepped back, faked to his left to get away from Florida’s Canyon Barry, turned back toward the middle of the paint and drained another jumper.
He looked to the corner at former Blue Devil and NBA All-Star Kyrie Irving and simply nodded.
After showing glimpses of his potential in his season debut Saturday against Maine, the five-star freshman made it clear Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in front of an electric crowd and plenty of NBA scouts that he has arrived.
“I was excited. I was in the moment and my teammates got me hyped,” Tatum said. “I heard Kyrie talking to me, so it was just a good moment.”
Tatum was one of three Duke players to register double figures in the Blue Devils’ 84-74 win against Florida Tuesday night. The St. Louis native poured in 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field, shooting a perfect 8-for-8 at the charity stripe and collecting eight rebounds.
But after starting against Maine, Tatum came off the bench Tuesday and struggled to finish over Gator shot blocker John Egbunu.
The first three times the McDonald’s All-American ventured into the paint, Egbunu forced two misses and a turnover—part of an early trend as Duke struggled to get its offense in gear.
“His first couple minutes he didn’t play well,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I took him out and said, ‘You have to play like you can play.’”
After Tatum re-entered the game with 8:56 left in the first half, he looked like a different player. Although he made an impact Saturday and even in his first few minutes Tuesday with his defense and rebounding, the St. Louis native looked like the player the Blue Devils had raved about in the preseason before he suffered a foot sprain.
Tatum quickly made a layup to get into the scoring action, and sparked Duke’s 21-10 spurt that changed the game with a pair of steals and rebounds as graduate student Amile Jefferson and sophomore Luke Kennard continued their recent tear.
After Tatum finished through contact on a tough layup with two seconds left in the first half, the entire Blue Devil squad celebrated on the court, recognizing the player they had seen all summer was back.
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“That’s Jayson Tatum right there,” freshman guard Frank Jackson said. “That’s what he’s done his whole life so we’re excited and ready for him to get back [to 100 percent].”
Even with his strong finish to the first half, Tatum finished the period with six points and four rebounds—rather pedestrian numbers for a scorer of his caliber.
But he showed why he is so dangerous as a 6-foot-8 swingman who can rebound inside but has a lethal mid-range game in the final 20 minutes. When Florida threatened to get within a few possessions midway through the second half, Tatum ripped off eight points in a row on free throws, a layup and the two mid-range jumpers to slam the door.
Although he is still learning how to play off the ball, Tatum gives the Blue Devils yet another weapon with his skills as an isolation player as Duke tries to incorporate him and classmates Marques Bolden and Harry Giles into the rotation in the coming weeks.
“This is a team that’s still finding out who we are, but is doing an amazing job of playing here and now,” Jefferson said. “That’s what Jayson did. He came ready, he came prepared and he just let it out. He’s such a special player, a great talent and we’re going to depend on him for games.”
Because of a foot sprain suffered during practice in October, Tatum is still not at full strength. He was cleared to practice just last week and with Duke already hampered by injuries to numerous players, the transition back to game shape is a difficult one.
Yet when it came time under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, the swingman showed that at even less than 100 percent, he is capable of being a crucial piece of the Blue Devil puzzle.
Tatum did his damage in just 29 minutes.
“I’m just really happy to be out here playing basketball,” Tatum said. “I’m just trying to get back in shape and in a rhythm. These guys have been playing great without us and just to get myself and other freshmen back in the lineup, we’re just trying to get adjusted and my teammates do a great job of helping me fit in.... It felt good to be back in the flow of things.”