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Magic number: beyond the arc with Jayson Tatum

A look into the three-point shooting of Jayson Tatum

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

With 6:08 remaining in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Jayson Tatum catches the ball on the right corner, pump fakes, then takes a three-pointer right as the shot clock buzzer expires. The crowd erupts, and the Celtics take a late lead in their attempt at making an NBA Finals.

The play was big in the moment, but also highlighted one thing: it was one of the rare times Tatum made a three-pointer in the playoffs. The rookie sensation came into the league with a reputation as a non-shooter but quickly dispelled the notion by leading the league in 3P% for a good chunk of the year. But as the season wore down, so did his accuracy from range. Was this a player regressing to the mean or did the dip highlight something that went beyond Tatum’s skillset?


In order to take a closer look at Tatum’s three-point shooting, I broke down his season into three parts: The first 41 games, the second 41 games, and the playoffs. Here’s how it all breaks down:

NBA

Part 1: The first half of the season

The first half of the season was the coming out party for Jayson Tatum. With Kyrie Irving and Al Horford running the show, Tatum was a beneficiary of clean looks from beyond the arc which lead to very promising results.

The rookie’s shot profile had virtually no pull-up attempts and 60% of his three-point attempts were classified as uncontested.

Part 2: The second half of the season

The next 41 games was more of the same, with a little less accuracy. Irving and Horford were around for most of the time, but even when Irving officially went out for the season on March 11th, Tatum was able to maintain a 44 3P%.

During those last 14 games, the teams egalitarian play style was still in full effect and teams hadn’t shifted into playoff mode. So the same looks existed for Tatum and outside of a momentary January slump after dislocating his thumb, he was just as accurate.

Part 3: the postseason

And then, the playoffs happened. Tatum’s accuracy dipped below league average as he faced determined playoff defenses that consistently threw their top perimeter defenders at him and were hellbent on not allowing any open threes. Without an elite shot creator like Kyrie Irving to draw extra defenders, Tatum was relied on more than ever to create his own looks. This is evident in his much higher pull-up attempt percentage and an increased time with the ball before shooting.

Throughout most of the year, his threes came in on a catch-and-shoot variety that were highlighted by his super quick touch time. In the playoffs, that touch time increased to 29.6% meaning he held the ball for longer than two seconds during those attempts. That’s just another way of saying more of his possessions were a product of self-creation, which seemed to have a direct effect on his accuracy from three.

But maybe there were other factors.

Fatigue

Tatum played 99 games last season only missing games in the end of season for rest purposes. During the January slump, most fans blamed a briefly dislocated finger for Tatum’s struggles. However, Brandy Cole, the mother of Tatum, pointed to fatigue being the main reason for Tatum’s slump:

His offensive load only got bigger the later it got into the season and it only gets harder to shoot from that far, especially when more and more of your looks are coming off the dribble.

Still not fully comfortable shooting threes

Something that became apparent throughout the year was even though Tatum was a dead eye shooter all year, his attempts were still quite low. Despite finishing 8th in 3P%, Tatum was 136th in 3PA which was last amongst his teammates who averaged more than two attempts 3PA per game. A big part of that was because he struggled shooting on the move without first having to take rthymn dribbles. It’s subtle, but here’s an example:

At first glance, this is a good job by Tatum utilizing bodies to get a clean look from the top of the key. However, the coaching staff would have probably wanted him to take this look off the hop:

In a recent podcast with Alex Kennedy, Drew Hanlen, Tatum’s trainer cited shooting threes off the bounce as one of the main things he was working on this summer. As teams adjust to defending Tatum after his hot season, getting comfortable shooting threes that aren’t straight up catch-and-shoot looks will be big for his development.

It’s important to remember that Tatum came into the league as a capable, but not elite three-point shooter. He’s never been asked to be high-volume three-point shooter until he became a pro, so it’ll be an adjustment for him to get comfortable shooting so effortlessly. The good news is the foundation to be an elite shooter is there and based on Tatum’s summer work, he will be taking all the necessary to get more comfortable shooting from range in all situations.