Jayson Tatum and the "upside" conundrum

Jayson Tatum's hype far exceeds the numbers he put on paper. Is he the next big thing, or just the subject of too much media attention?

"Jayson Tatum is overhyped" is a take that I thought to be lunacy, but I'm starting to understand where people are coming from. While I still disagree strongly, it's a conversation worth having because it digs into a common topic of conversation that creates an endless loop of "actually, you're wrong because [reasons]". Upside is how we rate young players in the NBA, and yet upside is an idea that has no concrete definition. People use stats, size, athleticism, basketball IQ, personality, fit with current team, personal diet, favorite movies, and "cat person" or "dog person" to argue the case that their team's rookie has more upside. But nobody uses all of those things, so there's no set criteria. There are three things in particular that form people's opinions that I want to discuss: 2K ratings, perspective bias, and different definitions of upside. Then, we can dig into why Jayson Tatum is (or isn't) worth the hype.

2K Ratings

Using 2K ratings to judge basketball players is absolute lunacy, and yet it's very much a part of the discussion these days. Not to say that ratings are ever the end-all-be-all, but they spark debate between two players' ratings, which will inherently create nonsensical arguments because each person starts at the conclusion they want (my favorite player is better) and works their way backwards.

To prove a point, you have to ask questions first. Is Jayson Tatum good? Is he really good? How good is he? What information can I use to prove how good he is?

Instead, people are starting at the finish line. Jayson Tatum is insanely good. Here's a list of things that prove how right I am, as well as how wrong you are.

Meanwhile, on the other side of your computer screen, somebody is typing up their Master's thesis on why Donovan Mitchell is the superior player. It's not even a real conversation at the point, but a stats-based urination contest. Totally pointless (unless you win).

Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Ben Simmons all received an 87 rating for 2K19. But how is this possible?? Only one of them was rookie of the year! And Tatum is, what, the 4th best player on his team? And...

The problem with any discussion that takes place from here is that a 2K rating was the starting point. For the record, I haven't played an NBA video game since NBA Street Homecourt circa 2012 (it came out in 2007), and NBA Live 2004 before that. I still get dragged into the 2K discussion just by having a Twitter account, and by all measures, the ratings are almost entirely arbitrary. Kyrie Irving was given a 93, while LeBron James got a 98. Are you telling me five points of something separate those two players? How does that work? It doesn't. It's not just an imperfect system, it's completely broken, and therefore useless.

Perspective Bias

I watched nearly every Celtics game last year. I check the NBA subreddit, the Celtics subreddit, and scroll through Twitter, where I follow many other NBA-obsessed freaks and reporters every single day. I see all the workout videos, the weird Snapchats, and the interesting stats that people dig up. Of course, I think Jayson Tatum is the best rookie, I can write 10 more blog posts on how dynamic and interesting his game is. I watched a fair amount of 76ers and Jazz games last season, but I'm not nearly as tuned in to those teams. I don't have a special folder of knowledge in my brain devoted each of those teams like I do with the Celtics. If any two players are close enough in overall potential that it's debatable, I'm arguing in favor of the Celtics player, not only because I'm biased, but because I can readily answer to any criticism.

And while I'm on the topic, let me get one thing off my chest: anybody who says they aren't biased is lying. Everybody grew up somewhere different, had certain childhood favorite players, and values different skills differently. You and I are absolutely biased in all aspects of basketball because different things formed our opinions as to what's important.

These biases contribute to how we calculate upside. I grew up idolizing Paul Pierce, known for his unique mix of strength and crafty scoring. So, naturally, something I value highly is a player's ability to score in a variety of ways. Tatum and Simmons can both get buckets, but Tatum very clearly has a more diverse skill set.

I also take a liking to players who clearly take basketball very seriously. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Tatum seem very locked-in, if not goofy sometimes. Joel Embiid, Markelle Fultz, and Simmons strike me as more aloof. Is either trait inherently worse? No, but I still value one over the other. How could I not? Kevin Garnett might be the most competitive athlete I've ever seen. If I have to predict which player will improve more over the years, I'm picking the one who I believe to be more focused.

Different definitions of "upside"

As I said in the beginning, not everybody uses the same definition of upside. Is it about how much you expect a player to actually improve, or the absolute maximum amount they could theoretically improve? Because there is a difference between those two things. Here's how I see it:

Actual improvement: Realistic, quantifiable differences from year to year. Incrementally increasing scoring averages, rebounding, whatever.

Theoretical improvement: Removing all constraints. What if he starting taking the game super seriously? And trusted his teammates more. And listened to his coach. How good would he be then? (Otherwise known as "Dwight Howard theory")

Sometimes, it's not nearly that complicated. Brandon Ingram, for example, is a very lengthy fellow. So is Kevin Durant. Does that make Kevin Durant the ceiling for Brandon Ingram? Some people see it that way. I've admittedly watched Durant much more than Ingram, but I see them as completely different players. Durant has this ability to know exactly when to cut, and a propensity to cock the ball all the way back on his way to humiliating anybody who dares to contest him at the rim. Ingram, a very skilled player in his own right, doesn't see that game in that way. Why set Durant as a ceiling for him if he doesn't see the game through a similar scope? I agree that length is an asset. It doesn't mean it'll be used in a Durant-like manner.

I think of upside as the likelihood that a player improves. A player with high potential with no motivation to get better has zero upside as far as I'm concerned. An average player who works relentlessly, on the other hand, has plenty of upside. There's an implication, in my mind, that the "upside" includes "good things that we haven't seen yet", which seems to be how many others see it, too. But there's also those who look at current, tangible aspects of a player such as raw athleticism and instinct. Some people look at both. It's all valid and conflicting at the same time. How can we discuss upside if we measure it so differently? I'm not sure there's a concrete answer.

If Jayson Tatum fits the "upside" criteria that you arbitrarily constructed in your head, then he's got infinite upside. Otherwise, he's still raw and unproven. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, although I don't understand how his playoff performance didn't win some people over.

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