After the game, Kyrie Irving jokingly made fun of Jayson Tatum’s post-game outfit, “that’s not the rookie contract. That’s the second contract.” It was playful banter between the Celtics two young stars after a big win over their division rival and maybe a bit of foreshadowing for the pair as Irving plans on signing a max deal this summer and Tatum continues to progress into stardom.
This is Tatum’s second season and earlier in the year, he suffered from a sophomore slump riddled with contested mid-range jumpers and criticism that a summer workout with Kobe Bryant infected his game with Mamba Mentality. But over the last fifteen games, Tatum is averaging a cool 18.5 points per game on 47.8% shooting and 35.5% from behind the arc as Boston’s second-leading scorer behind Irving. He’s been a consistent contributor and now, as he did against the Sixers last night, he’s finding ways to win games outside of scoring.
Against Philadelphia, Tatum hit just seven of his eighteen shots, including just 1-for-7 from behind the arc. He finished with 23 points and again second in scoring behind Irving, but it was his effort on defense and on the boards (his fourth double-digit rebound game this season) that tilt the scales in the Celtics’ favor. After the game, Tatum talked about his growing confidence and getting to the next level.
“For me, my next step as a player is just...I admire all the top players in the league, how they affect the game if they’re not scoring, just trying to help their team win. That’s what I aspire to be, just trying to affect the game in any way possible whether it’s rebounding, getting the block, or trying to get a stop when your shot’s not falling,” Tatum said.
During last year’s playoff run, it was widely accepted that Tatum was the more offensively gifted player over his battery mate, Jaylen Brown. Brown, on the other hand, was a defensive-minded stopper. Since Brown was replaced with Marcus Smart in the starting lineup, Tatum has had to hold his weight against some of the league’s best wings. Tuesday night against the Sixers, he went head-to-head with Jimmy Butler.
Jimmy Buckets shot 4-for-13 against Tatum (5-for-8 against other defenders). Tatum used his 6’11 wingspan to bother him on the perimeter, but it was his footwork cutting off drives and forcing Butler into fade away long-2’s that neutralized the otherwise aggressive former Bull and Timberwoof.
Around the rim, Tatum was a valuable weak side defender and rebounder. This block at the end of regulation preserved Boston’s one-point lead in the closing minutes.
And with Boston gang rebounding scheme, having Tatum’s length around the restricted area can quickly spark into easy transition.
For most of his young career, the conversation around Tatum has centered around his offense. The Celtics have relied on its versatility to turn him into the prototypical wing in Brad Stevens offense. But for him to maximize his development, he’ll have to not just do more with the ball in his hands. The great stars and superstars in the NBA find ways to affect the game on both sides of the ball, an aspect that Irving has embraced this season, too. “At the end of the day, all that matters is if we win or lose,” Tatum said.