Jayson Tatum debuted in a real NBA game on October 17th and found himself flanked by Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Boston’s previous lottery pick Jaylen Brown and NBA champion Kyrie Irving.
One minute in, he turned to face Irving as a ball flew his way in the low post. Durham turned into Cleveland real quick. He turned, put the first shot of his career up and LeBron James met him at the rim with one of his iconic blocks. The superstar he met and rebounded for at eight years old became real.
“He’s way bigger than I thought,” Tatum said, shaking his head. “He’s way better than I imagined. It’s the reason he is who he is.”
Less than six years prior, on Apr. 13, 2012, James received a tweet from a 14-year-old.
“Follow back,” he begged. “It’s Larry Hughes nephew from St. Louis.”
Hughes played with James from 2005-2008 in Cleveland, while his godson prepared to enter Chaminade Prep to embark on his own basketball career. His name: Jayson Tatum.
On Opening Night, Tatum likely proved inconsequential to James’ preparation as a bench rookie with both sides touting a combined 44 all-star appearances, a number that doesn’t do justice to Hayward’s certification alongside them.
Hayward broke his leg five minutes after the block, and Tatum ceased to be a bench player. He dropped 14 points and 10 rebounds in a botched comeback attempt, matching the stat line Larry Bird posted in his debut 38 years prior.
Depth charts initially dictated that James and Tatum would not become the central two figures in an ensuing Eastern Conference Finals series seven months later. That would have to wait years, or Hayward and Irving would have to disappear. The whole roster missed spurts of games in 2017-18, and as Hayward and Irving underwent season-ending surgeries Tatum played 80 games.
10 years after Paul Pierce and James engaged in a legendary playoff duel, Tatum gets his chance at 20 years old against a past idol he met through his godfather, Hughes, a friend and teammate of his father Justin Tatum.
James will guard a different player than the one he stuffed back in Octover. In spite of defensive concerns, Tatum posted a 1.5 defensive box plus minus, 1.3 through the playoffs (points saved per 100 possessions above the average player). In spite of shooting concerns he broke the Celtics’ rookie three pointer record and shot 43 percent from outside.
He also missed the potentially game-winning free throw in a March game against Washington, not without grazes along the rookie wall, and watched his potentially game-tying drive to the rim against the 76ers on Wednesday slip out of the rim and into the hands of Marcus Smart cleaning up behind him.
Persistence paid off with the ensuing possession turning to him in the low post as he slipped behind the defense. Philadelphia nearly drove back into the game on a desperation heave by JJ Redick, but technically Tatum laid in his first postseason go-ahead bucket in crunch time from the same spot James sent him packing seven months prior.
“You work all season to earn the trust of your teammates and the coaching staff for moments like this,” Tatum said. “Whether it’s finding Al on the lob or scoring a layup, just trying to make the right play.”
He drew back on the early days of his rookie season, night and day from the nervousness of opening night through 90 games of turmoil and chaos that relaxed his initial worries.
Through watching Hayward get carted off, losing three teammates for the regular season on March 11th, the flurry of games that preceded the London trip and getting caught in a sea of “he’s a rookie” chants the season moved too quickly for overthinking.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming into the season,” he said. “Our team looked a lot different then than it does now.”
In the tunnels Markelle Fultz once walked through with Danny Ainge, expected by the world to play at home in this series, Tatum assumed a spot in the Celtics’ locker room instead where a reporter asked him who the better rookie is between him and Ben Simmons.
With a grin, Tatum replied “no comment.”
If the second round of the playoffs determined Rookie of the Year, the stats would speak for themselves. While Simmons landed on a photoshop of Wilt Chamberlain with the two 0s whited out, Tatum broke off on an stretch of seven straight 20+ point games, including all five against Philly. With Donovan Mitchell’s first seven games to open these playoffs, the duo were the first rookies since Julius Erving in 1972 to put together such an impressive streak.
Averaging 23.6 points per game against the Sixers, Tatum reached 226 points in 12 career playoff games. Only Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Tony Parker stand ahead of him on the under-21 playoff scoring leaderboard, and they played 16, 10 and 4 more games than him respectively.
“This kid is amazing,” Pierce observed on Twitter as Tatum poured 25 points, an essential alley-oop to Horford in the closing seconds and the eventual game-winner on Philadelphia in Game 5.
Pierce did not have a chance to break into that leaderboard, but as comparisons mount between the past and possible future Celtics legends, Pierce’s 24.6 point per game barrage on the way to the East Finals in 2002 remains a standard Tatum can pursue. Yet Pierce was 24, and still six years away from his career-defining duel with James on the way to his championship in 2008.
As Brad Stevens observed after Game 5, the Celtics’ record books hold such luster that you’re probably ending up on the wrong side of history if you enter it now. Tatum’s an anomaly in that sense. Where Jaylen Brown exited the fold into last year’s East Finals with 17 minutes per game, Tatum will be central to the offensive attack Boston must mount on Cleveland’s porous defense to even keep pace with James as he averages 34 points per game, his second most ever in a postseason run.
When James averaged 28 in 2008, Pierce needed 41 points to stave off James and his 45-point barrage. Boston escaped by five. James, 10 years later, has aged like the wine he connoisseurs through three titles.
With Pierce praising him from the broadcast booth, earlier than ever imaginable, Tatum must leave James following him to the rim rather than on Twitter for Boston to have any chance.
To this point, for Tatum, “no moment’s too big,” as Stevens said after Game 3.