What a year it’s been for Boston Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum. After being selected with the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the Duke product started in all but two of the Celtics’ 82 regular season games. He helped lead the team to the Eastern Conference Finals while setting himself up to be one of the league’s next great superstars. Let’s assess Tatum’s first season in Boston, while also taking a look at his future.
Tatum’s rookie campaign was one of the best in the 2017 class. With the injury bug attacking the Celtics repeatedly throughout the year, the 20-year-old took on more and more responsibility as the season went on. At the start of the year, Tatum was hitting threes at an incredibly efficient rate, sitting near the top of the league from beyond the arc, and finding ways to create off the dribble and finish at the rim. He was (at the time) only 19 years young, but playing like an established NBA vet. Then the inevitable happened.
As most rookies do, Tatum hit the rookie wall. The guard dislocated his pinky finger in a loss to the Miami Heat on December 20, and seemingly found the proverbial barrier just weeks later. Following the injury, his three-point efficiency began to drop along with his confidence. Some blamed the pinky, while others blamed the unconventionally heavy load of responsibility being placed on a young rookie. Either way, he wasn’t the same player we watched early in the 2017-18 season.
January and February weren’t very kind to Tatum, but the Celtics top pick managed to break through the rookie wall during the remainder of the season. He scored in double-figures in 12 of Boston’s 13 games in March, including his first 20 and 10 game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Suddenly, his minutes returned to the high-twenties and mid-thirties and he was once again a focal point in the Celtics offense.
Tatum finished the regular season averaging 13.9 PPG and 5 RPG, while shooting 47.5% from the floor and 43.4% from three (first amongst rookies and eighth in the league). He would ultimately be selected for the NBA All-Rookie First Team, falling just one vote shy of being a unanimous choice. It was a tremendous opening act, but it quickly became apparent that the playoffs would be the main event.
Tatum started in all 19 playoff games for the Celtics, finishing as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 18.5 points per game. For much of the postseason, the 20-year-old was Boston’s best player. We saw plenty of his three-point shooting, improved ability to create for himself, and even a highlight-reel dunk on LeBron James, but Tatum seemed to progress even beyond those abilities. As the playoffs went on, the rookie’s defense and poise seemed to evolve dramatically. Sure, he still had his rookie moments here and there, which is to be expected, but Tatum managed to show an all-around game that many rookies don’t find until their third or fourth years. He helped lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals, and gave the league an exciting preview of what’s to come.
So what is to come? Where do we go from here now that Tatum has completed a rookie campaign that has figures like Paul Pierce, LeBron, and Paul George claiming that he’s going to be a superstar in the NBA for the foreseeable future? According to Tatum, he’ll be focusing on his body and eating habits this summer, now that he knows what it takes to be a successful player in the NBA.
Adding on a few pounds of muscle will certainly help Tatum continue to improve his game. He proved himself to be an effective slasher towards the end of the season, finding ways to create for himself off the dribble and get to the rim. “Getting bigger”, as he put it, will only help him get to the rim more effectively and often in his sophomore season.
Things will be different heading into training camp next season, as he’s now seen as one of the Celtics’ main contributors. With the return of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, sorting out the rotation becomes my greatest interest and potential concern. Tatum, Hayward, and Jaylen Brown will all look to take up major minutes next year, which could potentially stunt some of Tatum’s speedy progress. Of course he’ll continue to develop and blossom, but it’ll likely be at a slower rate.
He’s a blooming superstar, there’s no doubt about that. But with a crowded rotation, Tatum could lose some minutes, and even take on a lesser role. I’m not saying he won’t be a factor, he’s far too good to fall into the shadows of Irving and Hayward, but what I am saying is that we’re going to see a different version of the Celtics young star out of the gate in 2018-19. His growth is something that will have to slow down due to Boston’s loaded roster. It’s not the end of the world, as Tatum will still be a centerpiece in the Celtics offense, but it will have to be to a lesser degree if this rotation is going to run smoothly. So adjust accordingly; he won’t be making as dramatic of a jump in his sophomore season.
Don’t let this outlook deter you from being optimistic about Tatum’s future. It’s as bright as any player’s in the NBA. He’s a superstar in the making. At times this postseason, he carried the scoring load for Boston at the age of 20, but Tatum won’t have to do that alongside a fully healthy roster next year. If he can add some muscle, while continuing to improve his defensive abilities, Tatum will once again be extremely productive for Brad Stevens. The added muscle could allow him to even guard bigs in the Celtics inevitable small-ball lineups next year, which would help him to steal some extra minutes. Tatum is the Celtics’ best asset, and has the potential to be a franchise-changing piece. Next year should be another step in that direction, as he’ll continue to be a dangerous threat to opponents throughout the NBA.