Duke shows it can thrive, with Jayson Tatum accepting new role

Duke no longer looked disjointed.

The Blue Devils, slowed by their well-documented list of eight of their top players missing time due to injuries this season, finally looked like a team that had clearly defined roles.

No role was bigger in Monday night’s 84-74 win over Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, than watching Jayson Tatum accept his part as Duke's third scoring option.

The 6-foot-8 freshman forward turned in his first double-double, thanks to a career-best 14 rebounds to go along with 19 points.

Tatum isn’t a selfish player. But he is a scorer. And that part won’t change no matter how many other alpha-male scorers Duke has on its roster.

Tatum is second on the team with a 16.0 scoring average, and that's a testament to just how hard it is to change what's in a player’s DNA. Thing is, Duke doesn’t need him to be the guy who takes the most shots in order to win.

Tatum had the highest percentage of possessions used (27.6) -- which could mean made basket, turnover or missed shot that wasn’t claimed by an offensive board -- according to Ken Pomeroy. And Tatum takes the highest percentage of Duke's shots (28.0) when he’s on the floor.

It wasn’t just that he commanded so many shots when he was on the floor. It’s that the ball would typically stop moving in half-court sets when it went to him.

If he were shooting better than 42 percent from the floor and 29 percent from 3-point range, maybe that would be OK. But it isn’t -- not on this roster.

Especially when Luke Kennard is having a special season, leading the Blue Devils in scoring with 20.4 points per game. Kennard, by comparison, has a 22.3 percentage possession usage rate and takes 24.4 percent of the shots when he’s on the floor.

Grayson Allen takes the same percentage of shots. But, despite not living up to the expectations of a preseason ACC Player of the Year selection, he can still have performances like the one on Monday night. He had a game-high 21 points, made three 3-pointers, and added five rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes.

And Allen was clutch, too. His 3-pointer ended Notre Dame’s 12-0 run that had cut Duke's lead to 63-62. Allen’s subsequent jumper kept the Irish from getting closer than five points the rest of the game.

It was pretty evident on Monday night that Duke’s offense works best when it’s being facilitated through Kennard and Allen. The Blue Devils shot 50 percent or better from the floor in both halves for the third time this season and the first since a 110-57 win over Georgia Tech on Jan. 4 -- coach Mike Krzyzewski's last game before having back surgery.

As for Tatum, he will have plenty of chances to shine. As long as Duke stays committed to using a smaller lineup with Tatum playing power forward, there will be plenty of games in which he has a mismatch and he becomes a priority to feed on offense.

But there will also be games like Monday's.

With both Kennard and Amile Jefferson fouling out in the second half, there came a time where the Blue Devils needed Tatum to be assertive offensively, and he responded -- all within the flow of the offense.

Tatum still ended up taking the most shots for Duke; he was 8-of-14 overall. But for the first time in a while, he no longer had the look of someone who had predetermined whether or not he was going to take a shot before ever catching the ball.

Tatum read the defense and took advantage of the matchups -- whether it was driving past V.J. Beachem, who closed out too tightly on him on the perimeter, with a quick first step that ended in a layup, or posting the 6-foot-6 Steve Vasturia and shooting over him in the lane.

There’s still plenty of room for Tatum to grow. Now that he has seemingly figured out his role in the offense, he has to figure out how to cut down on so many turnovers.

In just nine ACC games, he leads the team with 30.

But as he’s showing, Tatum can adapt to new roles.