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Jayson Tatum has arrived

Jayson Tatum is showing all the signs of making a star leap this year

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Tatum doesn’t need an introduction.

The Celtics sophomore has begun his quest to take the next step to stardom within the construct of one of the deepest teams in the NBA. Unlike Irving, who has a role of leading the team, or Horford who will be the hub on both ends, Tatum is stuck in between the middle of two roles. On one hand, he’s the guy who has the ability to get the ball and get a basket, something he made abundantly cleared to the Sixers on Opening Night.

But before the crazy playoffs, and before the Kyrie injury, Tatum was an elite (though overqualified) 3-and-D player that was only asked to create in certain situations rather than as the main diet for his offense. Times were different then and that was probably the last time we’ll ever see Tatum be bashful to shoot when leading a second unit.

Right from the jump, Tatum made his presence felt this year by making the Sixers pay for their bold theory of putting Joel Embid on him. Every big basket last year felt like Tatum was convincing himself that he belonged, but a year later, those shots have taken on a clear, new meaning: I’m here.

The balance for Stevens & Co. is easy to define, but hard to figure out: how do you develop a player on a star track within the scheme of multiple All-Stars?

A year in review

Last year Tatum shocked the world by shooting 43% from three. While teams were desperately trying to wrap their heads around trying to stop the Irving-Horford PnR, Tatum proved an excellent foil to teams who tried to cheat with an extra defender.

This led to a consistent output, but also whispers that maybe Tatum was capable of more. Earlier in the season, he was just too timid and uncomfortable to really take the reigns of an offense when he was given the second unit to lead. However, when Kyrie went down with his knee injury after the All-Star break, Tatum responded by averaging 17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, and 2.5 apg before going into the playoffs and averaging 18.5ppg, 4.4rpg, and 2.7apg and ultimately proving that even without a lead guard, he was capable of creating his own offense.

The less talked about part of that run was Tatum’s shooting percentages from three absolutely plummeting from 43% during the regular season to 32.4% during the playoffs. Some of that could have been a combo of fatigue and playoff defenses, but there’s also the factor of him going from shooting primarily catch and shoot threes to primarily pull-up threes, a consequence of the difference of shot quality provided when playing with a playmaker.

Along with the dip in production came the dip in attempts and more of a reliance on two-point scoring. In a sense, we got two versions of Tatum last year. The spacer and defender that could be plugged into any playoff team and the number one option that could take charge in a playoff setting. Within those however is Tatum’s role this season. As a spacer and defender we didn’t get a chance to see Tatum carry the offense and has a number one option we didn’t see him get a chance to spread the floor as an off-ball threat. The goal this season will be to mesh those roles into the best outcome for the team.

Dancing with the stars

In the first game of the year, Tatum proved what should have been already understood: he can get buckets on anyone. Whether it was Robert Covington, Ben Simmons, or Joel Embiid, Tatum had no problem getting to his spots scoring with ease. With Gordon Hayward still getting to form and Kyrie Irving focusing on creating for others, there’s room for Tatum to exploit any and all mismatches he faces.

Armed with spacers at all 4 other possessions, there’s nothing the Sixers can do, but leave the shaky ankles of Amir Johnson on an island.

With a new emphasis on pushing the pace, one thing the Celtics have been doing is allowing any of their perimeter players to lead the break whenever they grab a rebound. Through three games, Tatum is averaging 10.7 rpg and has shown some untapped playmaking ability:

Tatum slows up when he realizes he has no numbers, gets the pick, but rejects it and penetrates, when he sees he got Simmons to collapse he throws it out to Baynes who was wide open for three.

He also has an understanding of how to read defenders off the PnR. Watch how he gets his defender in jail, then explodes by Noah Vonleh for a reverse layup here:

The next battle for Tatum will be shot selection when tasked with shot creation. So far, here’s how his shot tendency has balanced out:

Red=Frequency, Green= FG%
Cleaning the Glass

Through the first three games, Tatum has shown remarkable efficiency on long-two’s, and his 58.6 TS% is only second to Marcus Morris. However, Tatum is currently averaging about 5 long-two’s a game of his 16 FGA, not ALL of them are bad, for example, no will get on him for creating nothing out of something with the clock winding down:

However I'd imagine that the coaching staff would want to cut that number in half and distribute it to either more paint or three-point attempts. There have been multiple examples in each of the three games thus far where Tatum has passed up an open three off the catch and ended up having to go into his bag of tricks to get a fadeaway jumper from 17 feet. I would argue that simply eliminating those looks and taking the three could spread out his shooting distribution into a more modern look. However, it is worth noting that he’s averaging 4.7 3PA per game which is tied for second on the team, and he leads the team in FTA at 4.3. This is more about trimming the fat from the edges of Tatum’s game than calling for a complete revamp.

The Outlook

It’s very early, but the returns so far suggest Jayson Tatum is ready to take a leap. With that being said, as Irving gets his groove back, Hayward returns the form, and the offense finds its identity, there’s a world where Tatum may have to take a stepback. The real question will start to become how much of a stepback it will actually be.

His added strength has shown up in his finishing ability, his confidence shines through with his added aggressiveness to find his own offense, and being able to efficiently lead a team in scoring while the team maintains an 89.1 defensive rating while he’s on the court is an indicator of two-way stardom. That’s a big statement to make three games into the year, but since Kyrie went down last March, Tatum has been averaging 18.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.3 apg on 47.8/37.5/85.7 splits. The cat’s of the bag now, Tatum is no longer the wide-eyed rookie waiting along the perimeter to be fed by senior teammates, he’s the big kid on campus and he wants the whole damn meal. His stardom is not only imminent, but it may just be necessary if the Celtics have any chance of capturing a ring this season.

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