As mentioned before in a post making the case for Stevens as the clear choice for this season’s Coach of the Year, Boston’s unlikely success has come from young players stepping into bigger roles and producing. Terry Rozier has replaced the injured Kyrie Irving beautifully over the past few weeks, averaging over 18 points, six rebounds and about five assists as a starter. Marcus Morris is putting up 19.3 points per game over his last ten games, while reserves like Shane Larkin and Semi Ojeleye have produced at a high level off the bench.
There are two players however that have been stepping up all year long. As soon as Hayward went down on Opening Night, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were thrust into roles that we weren’t sure they could handle. Irving and Horford would take most of the playmaking responsibility, but the Celtics needed scoring and shooting from their wings.
Both players were expected to have key roles in the rotation before the Hayward injury, but there was legitimate concern that the increased responsibility would hinder their development. Stevens didn’t just throw them into the fire and hope for the best. He was deliberate in managing their responsibility on the floor so they weren’t overwhelmed. When Stevens felt they were ready for more, he gave it to them.
Stevens’ philosophy throughout his coaching career has been catering his game plan to his players’ strengths while doing his best to hide any of their weaknesses. This helped Brown and Tatum settle into their roles and now they’ve developed into more complete players because of it.
In the immediate aftermath of the Hayward injury, the Celtics relied heavily on the Irving-Horford pick and roll. Stevens kept Brown and Tatum spread out to knock down threes when the defense collapsed, or attack close outs worried about their outside stroke.
Outside these type of plays, Stevens put his young stars in a good position by setting them up in areas catered to their strengths. For Brown, Stevens put him in post ups against smaller guards, back screens for dunks, or on handoffs attacking the rim.
With Tatum, early season tape shows that the Celtics would either screen for him or just give him the ball at the top of the key. With a spread floor, Tatum could use his length and quickness at his size to get to the basket with little help defense. If a defender over-committed to prevent his outside shot, it would make the drive that much easier.
Tatum averaged around 14.4 points and shot 47% from three through the first three months of the season, solidifying himself as a dangerous scoring wing in the Boston offense. With Brown averaging 14.5 points and a 40% clip from three, the Celtics were a tough team to stop. Couple that with the best defense in the NBA, and it’s easy to understand the team’s 30-10 record through the first three months of the season.
During January and February, Tatum and Brown went through simultaneous slumps. Their shooting percentages and scoring went way down (Tatum from 47% from three to 34%, and Brown from 40% to 28%). The Celtics struggled with a 14-9 record, including some ugly losses to lottery teams. Nevertheless, Stevens kept his trademarked poise through the slump and trusted his young studs.
Then March came. The injuries started to pile up and the Celtics needed even more out of Tatum and Brown than before. Stevens had to increase their responsibility, so his trust in them through their slump made for a smoother transition. Now Tatum and Brown are handling the ball in pick and rolls, scoring and passing off the dribble much more than before.
Tatum has shown great patience in these plays as you can see below. He’s already a dangerous scorer with his shooting and ball-handling skills, but his ability to make plays for his teammates with a screen makes him very hard to guard. He ranks in the 92nd percentile for pick and roll ball handlers this season, which should add a terrifying element to a full strength Celtics’ offense.
Brown was primarily a slasher out of Berkeley. His feel for the game was questionable and his handle sloppy. Nobody thought Brown could manage pick and roll ball handler responsibilities this early in his career.
Despite his deficiencies in college, Stevens already has him making nice passes as the ball handler. He hasn’t been as effective as Tatum this season on these plays, and he still needs to improve his handle, but Brown is well ahead of schedule in his development as a playmaker.
After their rough January and February, Tatum is averaging over 16 points per game and shooting around 41% from three. Brown missed six games in March, but has averaged 15 points on 53% from behind the arc.
Stevens made it a point not to rush Brown and Tatum this season, and now we’re starting to see the benefits of that approach. When Irving and Hayward return to the starting lineup, the Celtics could have five players that can create for themselves and their teammates off the dribble and Boston’s league-best defense should make them a two-way nightmare for opposing teams.