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The summer of Jayson Tatum and what to expect in the fall

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The rookie has been impressive, but his offense could be a mirage.

NBA: Summer League-Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

It’s just summer league, but Jayson Tatum has already started to paid off on Danny Ainge’s gamble. Before the draft, Trader Danny dealt the rights to the #1 pick to Philadelphia and dropped down two spots in order to grab an extra asset and grab the guy he wanted at #3. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reports that Tatum has been the most impressive player to other players. Through six games in Utah and Las Vegas, the nineteen-year-old has looked polished and delivered on the promise of being what Isaiah Thomas and Gerald Green might call a “professional scorer.”

His go-to move has been that Kobe-esque fadeaway from the post. It’s a difficult shot that requires balance, foot work, and a feathery touch, all things that Tatum has already mastered at such a young age. But as pretty as it has looked, he’s been inefficient with it. Check out the shot charts from the last six games.

It’s a scatter blast of missed mid-range jumpers with most of them coming out of isolation. After shooting 46.8% in Utah, his shooting has taken a hit in Vegas at 42.2%, but the percentages are really irrelevant. This has been the summer of Tatum, but come fall, Brad Stevens will focus Tatum’s shot selection in order to maximize his effectiveness.

For the most part, Tatum has had to create for himself over the last week without the benefit of a point guard in a few games or stretch bigs to space the floor. In addition, summer league teams have very little time to practice together and offensive sets are fairly basic and not necessarily catered to a player’s specific strengths. But against Philadelphia last night, we saw glimpses of what Tatum could look like next season playing alongside playmakers Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe may have described Stevens’ pace-and-space system best:

Brad Stevens prefers a democratic offense. He wants Isaiah Thomas taking a handoff on the right wing, zipping toward the middle of the floor, sucking in help defenders, and flinging the rock to Hayward on the weak side -- in time for a second pick-and-roll against a scrambled defense. Each action flows into the next. It will be liquid. There will be no buffering.

You can cut and paste Hayward’s name and replace it with Tatum. There could be times when Stevens’ elects to ISO Tatum if he gets a favorable matchup on the wing against a slower or shorter player, but for the most part, he’ll act as a swingman after Boston’s new Big Three initiates the offense. For example:

It’s a simple pin down for Tatum to get the ball above the break, but instead of passing him the ball in the post and allowing the defense to settle behind him, he catches the ball already in motion with space created between him and his defender by the down screen. Here’s the game-winning play that iced the game for the Celtics last night:

Tatum sets up a 1-4 pick-and-pop with Demetrius Jackson, Jackson drives hard and kicks out to Semi Ojeleye, Ojeleye draws more defenders to him and kicks out to Tatum, and Tatum drives and finishes with an easy layup.

Tatum has looked like a budding young star so far and as SI’s Rob Mahoney suggests, the Celtics will benefit from integrating Tatum’s shotmaking ability into their flow offense like the Warriors did to accommodate Kevin Durant’s skillset. We’re far from projecting Tatum as KD 2.0, but it’s not a stretch to say that Tatum is the most offensively talented wing in the Brad Stevens era.

But let’s pump the brakes. After Boston’s 5-point win on Tuesday night, Stevens said, “I’m certainly encouraged by a lot of the things they can do individually, but a lot of them have a long way to go.” On Tatum specifically:

“He knows how to play. He can put the ball in the basket, but he’s had some things that have been good eye openers for him too because this league is tough. Whether it’s people getting underneath him—playing him physically—it’s about figuring out what shot is the best shot to take at that time and then finding those spots. Those are all things that you learn over time.”

Every time Tatum hits one of those difficult step backs, there’s this confirmation bias that he’s going to be a superstar; superstars hit big shots with defenders in their face and Jayson Tatum is hitting shots with defenders in his face so Jayson Tatum is going to be a superstar. Tatum may well be on his way to superstardom. It’s not like he’s some raw athletic freak. He’s showcased a game in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas that is years beyond his experience. It’s just a matter now of focusing his skillset and fitting it into the Celtics’ system.