LAS VEGAS — The Paul Pierce comparisons have chased him from Boston to Vegas, but Jayson Tatum is embracing and fulfilling them. With feathery feet and a hawkish wingspan, Tatum put on the defining performance of his summer league tour Saturday in an 86-81 Celtics win over the Lakers at the Thomas and Mack Center.
With a comprehensive mid-post game and a polished step back, summer league coach Walter McCarty experienced some deja vu harkening back to his early days wearing a Celtics jersey.
“He reminds me a lot of Paul Pierce when he was young," McCarty said after Tatum’s 27-point performance. "He has that ability just to be cool. He doesn't get too frantic. He doesn't get nervous. He just lets the game come to him. And he's got a quiet swag about him. It's really fun to watch him when he does it. I get excited just watching him. And we've just got to keep building on that."
The cold blooded Tatum was on display Saturday, emerging when he buried a 35-footer at the buzzer and calmly pointed at his mother and the Celtics analytics team going wild in the stands.
Tatum is calm and controlled when danger is near. For a teenager who probably thinks T-Pain is ol’ school music, he works space like a player coming off his rookie deal. He relies on an impressive step-back game from the mid-post, but has shown in both transition and the half court that he can use the distraction of the ball and wide footwork to find a comfortable look.
There are visions of Paul Pierce everywhere in his game. The Dirk step back out of a post-up was also mastered by The Truth in the early 2000s. The low and wide crossover into an 18-foot pull-up? Vintage Pierce.
It’s not a coincidence.
"Paul Pierce was definitely one of my favorite players," Tatum said. "Just his ability, his footwork, and his ability to create his own shot. He's not the most athletic guy and neither am I. So just finding, like, the way he found ways to score at a high level. And consistently. That's the things I looked at."
Studying Pierce prepares a young scorer not only to get their shot off, but to feel the flow of the defense. To know how to work the ball to find a shot or a pass. That latter part is still a ways away, as Tatum struggles to advance the ball to runners in transition. But he is feeling the flow and McCarty is in his ear making sure he stays with it.
"Be prepared. I'm gonna get you a lot of touches,” McCarty said he told Tatum at halftime after a first half in which McCarty said he got just three looks.
“Stay patient and, as Jerome (Allen) says, boogie. When you get the ball, boogie. And just take your shots and don't settle. That kid understands the game and he's got a special talent, a special gift. He put us on his back and did what he did. Got us the win."
He got the win and is now averaging 20.8 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. He is elevating the 7/11 partnership with Jaylen Brown, who has many superior physical tools but is still improving his feel for the game.
They do have a feel for getting down like Pierce, even imitating his pre-game dice roll routine from the Big 3 era. Jayson Tatum said it was Jaylen’s idea to do it. When asked if he knew of the significance, Tatum simply said, “No clue.”
It may be the one place so far that Tatum still needs to learn from Pierce. He has the complete package of a go-to scorer within that wide but skinny frame. As his build fills out, he can become a presence like Pierce and Carmelo Anthony were in the past.
Jaylen is blown away by him, who of course Brown refers to as a kid despite being a year older.
“The kid can flat out go,” Brown said. “He's poised, he takes his time, he makes the right play after the ball moves. The kid is poised. The kid can play. No one can take that from Jayson. He can score the ball at a very high level and he will for a long time in this league.“
He is able to finish at this level not just because of his footwork, but his dexterity. He has a lot of work to do on his left hand, but he can get layups off with his arm outstretched. This makes many of his drives viable scoring opportunities instead of chances for embarrassment.
He isn’t that athletic and he isn’t that fast, but athletic defenders need to out think him to stop him. He can initiate contact and finish outstretched, or slip under defenders for a tricky reverse. Celtics fans have seen plenty of this recently with Isaiah Thomas, although in a much smaller and more gravity-defying method.
It took Thomas until the middle of last season to be able to finish with his off hand and that’s something Tatum is working on early. He habitually finishes on the left side of the rim with a right-handed reverse, as shown in the photo above. But he broke out a lefty layup a few times in summer league. It’s the next big step for him to achieve, as defined by Danny Ainge in Tatum’s intoductory press conference and discussed here in earlier pieces.
For now, he has summer league to conquer.