HINGHAM — A lanky, athletic kid from Duke and the Boston Celtics second all-time leader scorer. A rookie at age 19, and a player who just got his jersey retired after 15 seasons in green. We’ll have to wait a long time for the answer to this question: will Jayson Tatum have a better career than Paul Pierce?
ESPN basketball insider Jeff Goodman has seen a lot of basketball, period: high school, AAU, international, college or the NBA. Talking with Bob Ryan on Bob Ryan’s Boston Podcast, he made it very clear what he believes Tatum’s career can turn into, ‘[Tatum] is going to have a better career than Paul Pierce.”
When you discuss the Celtics’ young core, Tatum is of course the hot topic, along with Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, and Jaylen Brown. Ryan went down the list in the order of their age and when Goodman gave his opinion, Ryan let out a hefty “woah!” and for good reason.
At 19 years old, Tatum is doing something that kids his age dream of: start and produce, for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, the Boston Celtics. We have seen Tatum lead the league in three point percentage (which has since dipped down to sixth), make tough shots in key moments, and defend at a high level. He’s already been noted as one of the most versatile players in the league and did I mention he still isn’t old enough to drink alcohol and use a rental car?
Celtics fans can only imagine what Tatum will turn into five to seven years down the line. The question will creep into fan’s minds, “will he have a better career than Pierce?” It will be tough to differ between the two players, because of the the different era’s they have played in. Let’s start with Pierce, because it would be disrespectful to do so otherwise.
Pierce already knows the narrative of what’s to come for this debate. In an interview done with Tatum at the Celtics practice facility back in October, Pierce joked how he needed to play 10 years, make seven all-star appearances, and win a championship, just to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park. Tatum, who had not played in a single game at that point in time, was quickly invited by the Red Sox to throw out the first pitch before the season started. That scene may foreshadow the next 20 years of how people will debate who’s had a better career. Pierce has all the tools to argue his side. All he has to say is, “look up, kid” and Tatum will see number 34 dangling from the Garden rafters.
What if Tatum can win a championship, sustain a long career in Boston, and average close to or better numbers than Pierce? Then does the narrative change? Pierce only played 48 games his rookie season, and averaged 16.5 points per game while shooting 44% from the field. This season, Tatum is averaging 13 points per game and shoots 47% on field goals in 63 games.
Tatum has the tools to be better. His length and athleticism allow him to be a switching machine, changing assignments up and down the court constantly, which rarely phases him. That combined with his shooting and ability to attack the basket off the first step, make Goodman’s comments sound enticing. Only time will tell.
Another constant debate that has surfaced in Boston is the play of guards Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. Smart, a restricted free agent after this season and Rozier the same in 2019. President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge will have a decision to make on who to keep, if any. Goodman knows what he would want if he were in Ainge’s seat:
“Love Terry Rozier…He’s one of the best guard rebounders in the NBA…I think next year he could be a starting point guard on a non-playoff team… I’ll take Rozier because I think he can play the point.”
Boston has two talented options for their backup guard spot moving forward. Do you keep Smart (the longest tenured player on Boston’s roster as of right now), a gritty defender who makes winning plays, has intangibles you cannot teach, but also has had some off the court issues? Or do you keep Rozier, who in his first NBA start, notched a triple double (17 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). Goodman sides with Rozier, but I side with Smart.
The catch is that Smart has to be at the right price. What is his market? A player that has struggled to shoot over 36% from the field and 30% from downtown this season, and also missed almost a month due to a hand laceration caused by an incident where he swiped at a picture frame due to frustration? You have to also weigh the positives, and in the end, those may surpass the negatives. The ability to defend almost every position (yes I say all because he’s guarded Paul Millsap in crunch time in the playoffs two years ago, and Kristaps Porzingis in crunch time on Christmas Day 2017, among countless other examples). He is elite defensively and will always sacrifice his body, diving on the floor for every lose ball.
Rozier is young, quick, and energetic. I agree with how Goodman said he plays the point guard position better, but what is easier to find either by way of free agency or the draft: a guy who is athletic, can defend and run an offense off the bench, or a player with the defensive intangibles and winning mentality that comes with Smart? If Smart demands more than $15 million per year, Boston should let him walk. However, if the number is $15M or below, put the pen to paper and sign him. He is a player every championship team needs, especially against teams like Golden State and Houston.
In Goodman’s chat with Ryan, it’s evident that he loves what Boston has going for them: the ability to compete for a Finals appearance this season, develop young players under the brilliant mind of Brad Stevens, and still have assets to make another splash down the line. He loves the potential of Jayson Tatum, he thinks Rozier can be a starter, and doesn’t know what to do with Smart. Heck, does anyone? These are good problems to have if you’re Ainge, and for the foreseeable future, Boston will always be nipping at the center of the basketball world.
Full audio version of episode available here.