Jayson Tatum couldn’t make a three-point shot in his first preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets. He finished the first half 0-for-3 from deep, and opted not to attempt another triple for the rest of the night.
Tatum’s ineffectiveness from beyond the arc was largely attributable to nerves. “I was anxious and excited and nervous at first,” he told the Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett the following day. “But as the game progressed, I felt a lot better.”
That much was clearly evident. Tatum scored eight points on 4-of-7 shooting in the second half. He looked every bit as polished as he’d been hyped up to be, but the distribution of his shots left those with an inclination towards more modern basketball wanting.
Tatum relied on his bread-and-butter for the points he scored that night: mid-post isolations and difficult shot making. It worked, but it also limited the flow of the Celtics’ offense. Tatum looked like the type of ball-stopping, midrange savant that many draft analysts had painted him as throughout the summer.
The following was pulled from his profile on DraftExpress.com.
“While his game doesn't completely fit the pace and space style, the majority of teams are aiming to employ, there's a lot of value in Tatum's one-on-one prowess inside the arc, especially if his team is able to invert the offense and surround him with shooters. He hasn't always been the most willing passer, as he has some ISO-heavy habits that date back to his high school days...
This wasn’t a unique take, and in his very first NBA experience, Tatum fit the bill perfectly. He added value through a variety of somewhat antiquated, albeit ultimately effective, means.
Boston’s offense, in theory, is predicated on finding open, efficient shots. The Celtics haven’t always had the personnel capable of embracing that identity to its fullest extent, but the goal of Brad Stevens’ system is to hunt out quality looks. Tatum’s offensive game, throughout high school and college, had been based primarily on a diet of shot attempts that are considered by most to be at odds with that philosophy: mid-range jump shots, fadeaways on the block, meandering drives to the rim, etc.
Tatum was talented enough to thrive regardless of his reliance on inefficient means, but at the games highest level those things have a tendency to clog offenses, even when they’re executed with abnormal effectiveness. All this to say, there was reason for concern about Tatum’s fit in the modern NBA, and his play in the Celtics’ very first appearance did little to quell it.
Flash forward a month and a half, and Tatum has squashed all doubt. He’s embraced a substantial role in the wake of Gordon Hayward’s injury, and molded his game towards the kind of ruthless efficiency that most hoped he might achieve after several years of play. Take a look at his shot chart.
Forty-five percent of Tatum’s attempts are coming at the rim, ranking in the seventy-fifth percentile league-wide (per Cleaning the Glass). He hasn’t finished particularly effectively by the basket, converting just 56.0 percent of his looks, but the sample size is small enough not to be overly concerned. Even just a few more makes could bump that number up substantially.
Tatum’s shot distribution is what really matters. It gives an indication of his style of play, and a peak at what his priorities are. He’s placed a clear emphasis on making his way towards the hoop, using his length and fluidity to make up for average explosiveness.
Tatum has an uncanny ability to stretch his body out and around defenders. It’s reflective of a kind of balance and grace that doesn’t traditionally get interpreted as athleticism. He uses it to snake by defenders mid-air, frequently drawing contact by forcing would be shot blockers to overextend.
Tatum’s ability to draw fouls has been, arguably, the most critically important component of his precocious efficiency. He’s getting fouled on 17.6% of his shot attempts, landing in the 95th percentile, as compared to all NBA players (per Cleaning the Glass).
Outside of dunks, free throws remain the most efficient possible source of points on a basketball court, and Tatum is generating them at an astonishing rate, as compared to his total portfolio of shots. He doesn’t have quite a substantial enough usage rate to make that count in a truly meaningful way, and his shot profile includes a few too many attempts in the mid-range to qualify as the kind of machine-like efficiency hunting of a player like James Harden, Damian Lillard, or even Robert Covington, but that’s OK.
Tatum doesn’t have the same kind of burst that Harden or Lillard can rely on, and he’s got a broader offensive mandate than Covington, who shoots three’s or takes layups and dunks, and isn’t expected to do much else. He’s also still learning the NBA game. To expect Tatum to be the fully actualized version of himself at just 19 years of age would be wildly unfair.
Sometimes a 15-footer is a good shot, and most of Tatum’s looks from inside the arc and outside the paint come after getting chased off of the three-point line.
That Tatum is considered enough of a threat from deep to produce a look like the one above is a major developmental milestone. The fact that he’s reached it so quickly is truly impressive, and should be terrifying for opposing defenses. If he becomes just a bit more ambitious as a three-point shooter, it could expand his game even more.
Tatum has a tendency to pass on any looks that aren’t wide open. If he starts to take a few more semi-contested three’s, even if his percentage drops because of it, he’ll find new cracks to attack against increasingly aggressive closeouts, and breath a few more inches of space into Boston’s sets.
That should come with time. Tatum is already way ahead of the curve in terms of transitioning his game towards a more modern approach. The amount of growth he’s shown from the time he stepped on the court in that first preseason game is staggering.
The ability to adapt and grow is exceptionally difficult to quantify. It’s part of what makes drafting players so challenging. Tatum has a unique aptitude for quick and continuous development. It’s helped him shed a number of preconceived notions about his style of play, and develop into one of the most promising young players the league has to offer. He’s only going to get better.