USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach breaks down what fans should keep an eye on in the East region of the NCAA Tournament.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — There are two ways of looking at Jayson Tatum’s emergence as arguably the best player in college basketball during the past month or so.

The first, as Tatum’s teammates will tell you, is that he’s simply playing like the player he was recruited to Duke to be: A focal point of a potent Blue Devils offense.

The second, as the Duke coaching staff will tell you, is that it makes sense that it took this long to get here. Tatum first had to get healthy — a foot injury forced him to miss the first eight games of the year — then, he had to adjust to the speed and physicality of the college game.

Since then, he’s thrived.

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“I don’t know if anyone can have a full appreciation of what he’s done, for a freshman who missed the first six weeks of the year,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer told USA TODAY Sports. “That time is critical. That’s when you really get a feel for what you can or cannot do.”

Head coach Mike Krzyzewski pointed out that even when Tatum was cleared to play, the rest of the team was out of sync. There was a break for exams. There were other players’ injuries, new and old. Even Krzyzewski’s back surgery followed shortly and sidelined the coach for seven games.

“There’s about a two-month gap of preparation that any player needs but especially a freshman needs,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s so good, and he’s so committed, and our guys are good with him, that since the beginning of January he’s progressed so much. And I’m proud of him.

“I thought he’d be playing at this level earlier. But I’m glad he’s been able to achieve the level that he’s playing at during this season that he’s playing college basketball.”

That’s right: This season. This one season. As if there was any doubt about the length of Tatum’s time in college basketball, his play in the past month has erased it. In the past 10 games, the 6-8 forward is averaging 19.0 points and 7.9 rebounds. He dazzled at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last week, with speed, sheer athleticism and a few unbelievable slam dunks.

“If he’s not the No. 1 pick, I’ve got to see the guy who is,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said after Duke beat the Irish in the ACC tournament title game. “He plays with the poise and pace now of an older player. They’ve done a great job bringing him along and putting him in situations where he can be really successful. He’s an amazingly gifted guy, and he has a great demeanor. He just kind of stays calm and plays.

“What’s shocking is, when you’re standing on the floor, how big he is. His size is imposing in that he gets up over the top of people.”

Tatum isn’t just impressing opposing coaches with his eye-popping recent numbers, as Brey alluded to. Multiple NBA front office executives who discussed Tatum’s draft stock with USA TODAY Sports this week believe he could be considered for the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft, depending on which team lands it, despite a general long-held belief that the top pick would be either UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Washington’s Markelle Fultz.

Because league rules prohibit teams from discussing prospects until they have committed to enter the draft, the executives spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“The talent is already there; it’s oozing out of him,” senior forward Amile Jefferson said. “For our team, it was just about him being sharp. This last month, he’s been doing an amazing job at evolving, doing much more — things like rebounding, playing really good defense, drawing two guys and finding the open man.”

Those little things — the different between a naturally talented college player and a great college star — are things Tatum has worked on with Scheyer all season long. The two  focused on speeding up Tatum’s game, improving consistency with his jump shot and building up the freshman’s confidence.

A turning point, Scheyer said, was the second half of Duke’s first game against North Carolina, on Feb. 9. Tatum was 0-for-3 from the field at the break, before reeling off 19 points to go along with five assists and nine rebounds in the Blue Devils’ 86-78 win against their archrival.

“One of the things, from him being out in the beginning of the year, I think he’s deferred at times,” Scheyer said. “In the first half against Carolina — his first Carolina game — he missed his first shot, then he passed up the next one. … You can’t be worried about missed shots.

“Coach had to say to him, ‘Everyone expects you to take those shots. Don’t worry about misses and makes.’ He comes out in the second half and he kills it. In the ACC tournament, I think you saw it, too. He’s not worried about misses and makes; he’s just playing — and that’s where he’s at his best.”

Good timing, too.

No. 2 seed Duke opens NCAA tournament action Friday evening against No. 15 Troy.

Contributing: Sam Amick



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