The KC Prep Invitational is your typical summer high school basketball experience. Four courts buzz at once at Okun Fieldhouse in Shawnee. College coaches gather in a roped-off area. Sneakers squeak, whistles shriek, and games roll on.
Crowds generally don’t spike until St. Louis standout Jayson Tatum and his Eagles hit the floor. Referees and teams with a break in their schedule congregate in the corners. Spectators with Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana apparel fill the bleachers.
ESPN has Tatum ranked as the fifth-best prospect in the country for the Class of 2016. Tatum, 15, was in Uruguay a month ago, averaging 10 points and 2.2 assists while helping the United States win the FIBA Americas U16 Championship.
Missouri offered him a scholarship before he ever got to high school. Kansas, Illinois, Florida, Kentucky, Marquette, Memphis and St. Louis have followed suit. There will be many others by the time Tatum is ready to make his decision.
It doesn’t take long to see why his star is rising. Standing 6 feet 6 and weighing 175 pounts, Tatum has small-forward size with a point guard’s ball-handling ability — and three more seasons to grow into that frame.
In the span of one game Friday, Tatum ignited a fast break with a three-quarter court outlet pass. He sneaked behind the defense and finished an easy lob dunk. He splashed a 15-foot turnaround, swatted shots from the weak side, split two defenders and put back his own miss and picked up a handful of easy assists.
Tatum will be the center of attention on most every court he steps onto between now and when his high school career wraps up.
“(This summer) is nothing I expected, most of all the USA experience,” he said. “It was like the greatest thing ever, a dream come true.”
He went from Uruguay to St. Louis, to practice with his high school teammates at Chaminade College Prep. Then he joined the St. Louis Eagles 16s for a summer-league tournament in Chicago before coming to Kansas City.
“I’m very grateful for all the attention,” Tatum said. “It just shows how hard I’ve been working and the hours I’ve been putting in the gym, that people are recognizing me and recognizing my talent.”
College programs do what they can to interact with Tatum face to face. Everybody else seeks him out on social media.
“In the gym, sometimes they come up to me, but most of it is on Twitter,” he said. “The college fans are telling me Kentucky is the best, a good fit for me. Or Kansas or Mizzou. That’s where most of the fans acknowledge me. Sometimes, some schools’ fans will get in an argument, and it’s funny to see.”
Tatum said the leader for the most vocal fan base at the moment goes to Kentucky.
It’s only beginning, of course. He will be wooed by programs and fans alike. His baby face and grown man’s game will be squarely in the spotlight for all college basketball fans to see.
Tatum, armed with a quick and easy smile, is prepared.
“I think it’s been happening a lot lately,” Tatum said. “And every time we play, I’ll be ready for it more and more.”