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Jayson Tatum, my rookie

With Rookie of the Year candidates Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons fighting for their team’s playoff lives, it’s been Jayson Tatum that has proved that youth is not wasted on the young.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers - Game Three Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was only 8. At 18, Alexander the Great was expanding his Greek empire into the Middle East and India. Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” at 20. Just two months removed from his 20th birthday, Jayson Tatum closed out the Milwaukee Bucks and dominated the Philadelphia 76ers en route to a 3-0 in the Eastern Conference semis.

During Boston’s current four-game winning streak, Tatum is tied with Terry Rozier for Celtics’ leading scorer at 23.3 ppg on 51.6% shooting. His string of 20+ point performances in his rookie season has put him in some rarefied air:

The numbers are impressive, but they don’t tell the entire story. In less than eight months, Taco Jay has shown a developmental growth spurt that most young players would see over four seasons, not within one. Coming out of Duke, he was known as an able scorer, most notably in the mid-range, and Paul Pierce comps had fans gushing. But even Pierce thinks Tatum’s better than he was in his rookie year:

Before the Celtics traded down and selected Tatum with the #3 pick in The Great Danny Ainge Robbery of 2017, DraftExpress saddled Tatum with these weaknesses: “streaky shooter, creating vs. NBA wings, and decision making.” The doubters have been silenced by The Progress. Tatum has not only delivered on that polished offensive game, he’s made strides to expand his attack under the confetti bright lights of the playoffs.

It’s not a perfect measure, but for me, taking it to the rim is a good indication of a young player’s development and maybe more importantly, the rise of their confidence level. Since his January slump after dislocating his pinky finger, Tatum has grown more and more comfortable attacking off the dribble.

His shot distribution in the restricted area has increased 34.6% in January to 39.8% in February to 30.3% and 32.6% in March and April while the Celtics were adjusting on the fly from the losses of Kyrie Irving, Daniel Theis, and Marcus Smart to 41.7% in the playoffs. He leads the Celtics in drives per game in the playoffs at 11.3. For some context, only 18 players average over 10 or more in the post season.

Tatum has drawn the toughest covers in both the Milwaukee and Philadelphia series. Against the Bucks, Tatum was defended by the lanky Khris Middleton and so far vs. the Sixers, Philly’s 3&D man Robert Covington has been assigned to Tatum. He’s torched them both. In Game 3, Tatum was 6 for 8 against RoCo. On smaller guards like Marco Belinelli and JJ Redick, he was 3 for 4. In an offensive system built to take advantages of mismatches, Tatum has been Ainge’s most lucrative investment in large part due to Tatum’s diversified assets.

Even on shots he missed, you can tell that the usually mild mannered Tatum has come out of his shell and revealed the killer in him.:

“You got lucky, you got lucky.” That’s so Tatum. Brash but polite but brash.

End of the season award ballots are placed at the end of the regular season in mid-April. Ben Simmons is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but you have to think with how Tatum has outplayed Simmons and how the Celtics have exposed Simmons’ weaknesses while the Sixers continue to reel from Tatum’s offensive game, the vote might be a little different with post season performances on their resume.

You got lucky, Ben. You got lucky.