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ADAM HIMMELSBACH

‘Jayson was killing it.’ How an 18-year-old Tatum took on Anthony Davis for 3 days at Duke

Though they play regularly against each other in the NBA, Jayson Tatum and Anthony Davis played against each  other while Tatum was at Duke, and Davis so impressed with what he saw that he was sure Tatum would be a great pro.
Though they play regularly against each other in the NBA, Jayson Tatum and Anthony Davis played against each other while Tatum was at Duke, and Davis so impressed with what he saw that he was sure Tatum would be a great pro.MADDIE MAYER/Getty Images/File/Getty Images

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Whenever this uneven Celtics’ season ends, the team will turn its focus toward trading for Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis. One of the biggest questions surrounding a potential deal will be how hard New Orleans pushes for the Celtics’ rising star, Jayson Tatum, who will just be turning 21 next Sunday but has offered tantalizing glimpses of what he could become.

The Pelicans will surely be monitoring Tatum closely in the coming months, but their initial link to him actually was formed 2½ years ago. This is the story of the three days in September 2016, before Tatum had even played a game at Duke, when he battled the Pelicans and left them awed by his potential. To several observers, Tatum was the best player on the court other than Davis, and Davis was as impressed as anyone.

“When we left, I knew [Tatum] was NBA ready,” Davis said recently. “He did some amazing things out there. He was going at us like we were any other guys. And everything he did at Duke when we were down there, he’s showing right now.”

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‘I’d heard Anthony Davis was there’

Lauren Holiday, wife of Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, was a member of the US women’s national soccer team, who retired in 2015 to focus on raising a family. She was pregnant with the couple’s first child in the summer of 2016 when she began to experience severe head pain. She was ultimately diagnosed with a benign brain tumor behind her right eye.

Jrue Holiday took a leave of absence from the Pelicans to be with his wife. They relocated to North Carolina for about three months so Lauren could receive treatment at Duke Medical Center, where she would ultimately give birth to a healthy baby girl and undergo successful brain surgery.

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That September, before Pelicans training camp began, a group of New Orleans players, including Davis, Solomon Hill, Tim Frazier, Quincy Pondexter, and Dante Cunningham went to Duke for several days to support their teammate and his wife.

With a new season fast approaching, of course, they also needed a place to play basketball while they were there. The good news was that Duke, in addition to having world-class medical facilities, can also provide some pretty good basketball competition.

The Blue Devils soon learned at a team meeting that instead of going through some monotonous preseason workouts, they would be facing an NBA team.

“I was excited,” Tatum said, “because I’d heard Anthony Davis was there.”

‘He could do everything’

Tatum was already a known quantity at that point. As a senior at Chaminade Prep in St. Louis he was named a McDonald’s All-American and Gatorade’s national player of the year.

But there is a sizable difference between facing scrawny 16-year-olds and facing NBA stars. And Tatum had not even suited up for Duke yet, so no one knew what to expect. Once the games began, though, it did not take him long to introduce himself to the unfamiliar.

“He immediately stood out,” Holiday said. “He could do everything. You saw how he could shoot if someone at the next level was guarding him. He could make a play. He pretty much had all the talent and ability, so everybody pretty much knew he was going one-and-done.”

Jayson Tatum (right) played high school basketball at St. Louis’s Chaminade Prep, which competed in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., in 2016.
Jayson Tatum (right) played high school basketball at St. Louis’s Chaminade Prep, which competed in the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass., in 2016.Gregory Payan/AP

Added former Duke guard Luke Kennard, who now plays for the Pistons: “I don’t think anybody could really stop him. He was just scoring the way he wanted to score. He was at that level already, and he knew it. His athleticism and skill stood out among anybody there, and he was definitely one of the best players in the gym.”

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The games were played on Duke’s practice court over the span of three days. Teams were not selected and there was no cross-mingling. The Blue Devils stayed together, and so did the Pelicans. No cameras were allowed inside, and not many people were, either.

The audience consisted of players from the two teams, a few Duke managers, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry and Pelicans advisor Danny Ferry, who was recently named the team’s interim general manager after Dell Demps was fired. NCAA rules even kept Duke’s coaches from watching, because it was not an official team practice.

He won’t back down

Duke walk-on Nick Pagliuca, the son of Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca, could tell how much the Pelicans respected Tatum simply by how hard they were playing against him.

“Guys needed to be doing their best so they didn’t look foolish,” Pagliuca said. “You couldn’t really tell [Tatum] apart from the pros. His game was so smooth. We get a lot of good freshmen at Duke, and just to see his game so NBA ready when he came in was still something different than what you’d usually see.”

In the games, Tatum shined much like he shines for the Celtics now. He attacked the rim when there were opportunities, but mostly punished the Pelicans with a dizzying array of step-back and side-step jumpers, including one that sent Duke to a surprising win over the Davis-led group.

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“There’s just a small number of guys in that situation that can step up and separate themselves,” Hill said. “That’s why [Tatum] is who he is. Some guys would probably cower down or just try to play a role and do the little things. But you kind of knew he was the leader. He was physical. It looked like he was ready to play in the NBA that day. Definitely got us on our P’s and Q’s.”

Tatum said he had to play harder than everyone else to make up for the experience gap, but he added that the games and the conversations that followed them reinforced his belief that he would be ready for the NBA before long.

“Anthony Davis came up to me and told me he thought I was really talented and that he’d be seeing me soon,” Tatum said. “So, that felt good.”

In his one season at Duke, Jayson Tatum averaged 16.8 points per game.
In his one season at Duke, Jayson Tatum averaged 16.8 points per game.Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

‘Jayson was killing it’

In the days and weeks that followed, word of Tatum’s performances filtered to Celtics director of scouting and player evaluation Dave Lewin. Tatum, by all accounts, had been the best player in the games other than Davis. Boston knew it would likely have a high draft pick coming courtesy of the lowly Brooklyn Nets, and Tatum was already on the franchise’s short list of players to watch closely.

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When Tatum suffered a foot injury in October that sidelined him until December, and then seemed to be slowed for a bit after his return, the extra intelligence about his pre-injury performance gave Boston’s brass a little more peace of mind.

“The consensus during those open runs,” Lewin said, “was that Jayson was killing it.”

Tatum had no idea that just over two years later he would be mentioned as a potential trade piece in a deal for Davis, one of the game’s transcendent talents. He acknowledged recently that if he was a general manager trying to acquire Davis, he would probably trade himself, too.

But those games against the All-Star forward gave Tatum a taste of what life at the highest level would be like. He was struck by Davis’s size, and how he dominated almost effortlessly. And the matchups ultimately fostered some mutual admiration. Tatum and Davis chatted after the games, and Davis left Duke knowing exactly who Jayson Tatum was.

“He’s definitely going to be a star in this league for sure, a potential All-Star,” Davis said. “I think Boston got a good one in him. He’s only going to keep getting better, and the better he gets, the tougher it’s going to be on the opposing team.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.