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Jayson Tatum on fast forward

With Gordon Hayward out for an extended period, the 19-year-old is arguably the best wing scorer on the Celtic roster. By necessity, the learning curve comes quick for the rookie, so what can we expect from his development?

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This was supposed to be a growth year for Jayson Tatum. He was 4th or 5th in the pecking order. He had four months to prepare for his role. Firing quality catch-and-shoot jumpers, attacking closeouts, and swinging the ball. Then occasionally calling upon those patented one-on-one moves at the end of shot clocks. Those were supposed to be his primary offensive objections.

Now, Gordon Hayward’s leg injury modifies Tatum’s responsibilities. The rookie finds himself as arguably the top wing scorer on the team, and will be heavily relied upon to generate his offense. He’s sure to be utilized in more of a featured offensive role, and the maturation process may be faster than anyone expected.

The training wheels are fully off. Brad Stevens has handed him 35.5 minutes per game, more than any other rookie and Tatum has responded, averaging 12.3 PPG on 40.7% shooting. While the Celtics occasionally struggled last season to carve out minutes for Jaylen Brown, Tatum seems positioned to have a big enough workload to remain in the Rookie of the Year discussions. Marcus Morris’ return should drop Tatum back down to around 30 minutes per night, but that’s still more than enough for Tatum to make considerable leaps.

Isolation scoring is the rarest and most desired commodity for basketball talent evaluators. Players who create their own looks at the end of shot clocks are always valuable, and Tatum was one of the most polished one-on-one scorers in college basketball. Over relying on a rookie is a dangerous game, but when watching Tatum, you can’t help but notice his refreshing confidence and maturity. He exhibits the footwork and patience of a 10-year veteran, and evokes a profound trustworthiness to allow him to work in isolation. Look here how he uses multiple bumps to create separation. He recognizes that the weakside Milwaukee big isn’t shifting to help, so he tactfully uses the extra time to create more shooting space over the smaller Khris Middleton. Most neophytes would have rushed this shot.

However, constructing quality shots for teammates remains a significant concern with his offensive game. The 12% assist rate and 2.6 dimes per 40 minutes during his one season at Duke is underwhelming. He was expecting to be a major shooting beneficiary of Stevens’ drive and kick offensive scheme. In lieu of Hayward’s absence, he’ll be asked to help fill more of a facilitator role rather than a finishing role.

All of a sudden, he’s is a focal point of the Celtic offense, and he’ll start to garner more attention. A week ago, Tatum was an afterthought when scheming for the Celtic offense. Now, coaches will be keying in on him with specific game plans and defensive looks. He’ll quickly have to become accustomed to drawing multiple defenders in order to generate shots for his teammates. Fortunately, the system has plenty off ball movement, and once Tatum gets accustomed to coexisting with his teammates, the assist opportunities will become easier.

The Celtics are loaded with young playmakers, so Jayson’s on-ball role will expand gradually. Don’t expect to see the Summer League player who was getting isolation post touches on every possession and launching contested heat checks. Tatum dazzled in those duties, awing fans with his shoulder shake turnaround jumpers, but he was competing against a group of fringe professional players. The regular season is a different animal.

It’s better for him to blossom within the confines of Stevens’ pass-happy system. Learning how to breakdown and decipher NBA defenses is one of the hardest skills to develop, and he’s about to jump head first into the deep end. He’s already shown a willingness to draw defenders with penetration then locate open teammates. That’s a primary facet in Boston’s 5-out system.

Early observers should be pleasantly surprised with his transition offense. Tatum’s reputation as a half-court assassin is well-documented, but he’s shown an ability to take the rock from coast-to-coast using a foray of finishes at the rim. At 6’8 (though some believe he might grow to 6’10), he’s exhibited Blake Griffin-like navigability as a point-forward in the open floor. He isn’t on Blake’s level as a passer, not even close, but Stevens has historically allowed his bigs to lead the fast-break, and the opportunities should be there.

As a small-ball stretch four, he presents endless matchup problems for opposing defenses. Conventional bigs just won’t be able to stay in front of him, particularly in transition and when he attacks closeouts. But with a 7’0 wingspan and textbook space creation footwork, he’ll start to abuse shorter defenders who can’t matchup with his length. Unlike the Celtics, most teams aren’t loaded with 6’8ish position-less athletes to throw at a versatile scorer like Tatum. Expect him to quickly learn how to isolate certain mismatches and attack inherent weaknesses in those defenders.

Sacrificing on second chance opportunities is the downside of playing with a small-ball four, especially when paired with Al Horford, a bashful rebounder at this point in his career. After finishing 26th in total rebounds per game last year, the C’s rank 7th thus far in 2017. Tatum’s 9.0 boards per game lead the team, and outperforming Morris and Semi Ojeleye on the glass could be the difference maker in who earns the most playing time. Morris has been historically allergic to collecting rebounds, too.

Danny Ainge opted to address the rebounding deficiencies by getting longer and more athletic at the 1 through 4 positions, while staying undersized at center. Tatum offers a better combination of length, height, and natural leaping ability than any other small-ball power forward in the past few years, namely Crowder and Jonas Jerebko. The floor-spacing utility combo forward is integral to Stevens’ 5-out formation, and the Celtics would love if Tatum could run away with the job.

Here are the rookie stats of six of some number 3 draft picks. I excluded Jaylen Brown (I believe you’re familiar), as well as Joel Embiid and Otto Porter (injured for most or all of their rookie seasons).

Season statistics provided by basketball reference

Read into the numbers however you want. The above charted teams averaged just 29 wins in those seasons. Even without Hayward, the Celtics should expect to compete for a top-4 seed. So unlike other young teams, Boston can’t afford to gift endless shot attempts to their prized rookie if he’s not producing. With so much young developmental promise on the roster, Tatum will have to remain efficient and limit his turnovers in order to sustain a longer leash.

There was a palpable buzz surrounding the Celtics at the beginning of last week. Hayward’s injury took the wind out of the sails, but the fans’ excitement should shift onto the continued growth of the developmental players. Boston has the third youngest squad in the NBA, and GMs of middling small market teams would sell their soul to trade rosters with Danny Ainge. Tatum is a big reason why. He has every physical tool you would want in a modern combo wing. He’s been up to the test so far, but it’s going to get tougher and he’ll have to adjust on the fly.

All non-cited statistics are from

All salary information is from

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