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The rise of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown

And no, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward won’t hurt their games.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, there’s been a lot of hand wringing over the impending minutes crunch that Brad Stevens could be facing with such a deep Celtics roster heading into next season. With Danny Ainge claiming that both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are already 100% ready to go into training camp, the narrative of adding two All Stars to a young roster that, on its own, had a late fourth quarter lead in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals has turned from a wealth of riches, feel good story to an imminent problem of having too many mouths to feed. Specifically, we’re talking about Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the two rising stars of the Celtics.

Tatum recently assuaged any concerns that PT would be a problem next season. In a interview, Tatum told Nicole Yang:

“Everybody has a job to do,” he said. “Our job is to be the best versions of ourselves and come together for a bigger goal, which is winning a championship. Brad’s job is to manage playing time and manage all sorts of stuff. That’s why he’s the coach. We got a bunch of selfless guys on the team that just want to win. We’ll figure it out.”

Tatum said it does not matter to him whether he starts or comes off the bench.

“I understand how deep our team is,” he said. “I just care about winning and doing what I can while I’m on the floor.”

That may come off as player-speak in late-August before the first regular season game has even been played. After finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting and being a big part in Boston’s unexpected run in last season’s playoffs, Tatum would have every right to feel himself a little. But that’s not Jayson Tatum (or Jaylen Brown (or Terry Rozier (or Marcus Smart))) or these Boston Celtics.

Usage rate isn’t exactly the most accurate measure of a player’s effectiveness on the offensive end, but it can help in setting a numerical value to how active they are in generating points. More so, it can give a general outlook of how dependent a team is on an individual player based on the framework of his team.

To show how egalitarian the Celtics are, seven of their ten rotation players hover around 20% (or the natural one-fifth of a five-man unit). Kyrie Irving tops out at 30.7%, but even role players like Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis averaged 17% and 15.5% respectively. Consider how unbalanced other contenders were last season. Many were top heavy (Harden had a 36.1% usage rate and LeBron James came in at 31.6%) and starters like J.R. Smith and Trevor Ariza didn’t break 15%. That’s not to devalue their contributions on the defensive end or throw shade at their jumper, but it just shows how different these conference finalists are built.

In the playoffs for the Celtics--without Kyrie or Hayward--the youngsters clearly took on more responsibility. In the regular season, only Jaylen Brown averaged a usage rate over 20% (21.1%), but when the pressure of the post season got turned up in Boston, the kids delivered. Al Horford was consistently lauded for his efficiency, but he was 8th on the team in usage rate at 18.5%. Brown, Tatum, Rozier, and Smart averaged 24.5%, 23.6%, 20.7%, and 20.4% respectively. They were all breakout performers to varying degrees, but none of them played outside of the team’s ball-sharing scheme.

For the most part, Brown and Tatum were wing men next to Kyrie and Horford, finishers benefiting from their All Star teammates’ playmaking. Most of their half court offense was generated when the ball swung over to their side after the defense was forced to make its first rotation or off a series of off ball screens to get them open. In Brad Stevens’ development plan, they weren’t initially asked to do too much: shoot the open shot or attack close outs. You can see it in their combined regular season shot distributions:

Nearly three quarters of their FGA’s come from inside the restricted area or behind the arc. Those shots were mostly coming from kick outs and drives. By the playoffs, they showed flashes of superstardom, particularly Tatum. He averaged 3.7 isolations per game in April and May; to put that into perspective, Irving averaged 3.6 per game in the regular season.

So, what are we to make of Tatum and Brown’s next step heading into 2018-2019? Here’s a list of wings that spent one or two years in college and their scoring progressions over the span of their rookie contracts:

Scoring progression of 19 and 20-year-old rookies

Draft Pick Player Year 1 PPG Year 2 PPG Year 3 PPG Year 4 PPG
Draft Pick Player Year 1 PPG Year 2 PPG Year 3 PPG Year 4 PPG
15 Giannis Antetokounmpo 6.8 12.7 16.9 22.9
10 Paul George 7.8 12.1 17.4 21.7
15 Kawhi Leonard 7.9 11.9 12.8 16.5
9 Gordon Hayward 5.4 11.8 14.1 16.2
9 DeMar DeRozan 8.6 17.2 16.7 18.1
1 Andrew Wiggins 16.9 20.7 23.6 19.3
4 Tyreke Evans 20.1 17.8 16.5 15.2
19 Tobias Harris 5 11 14.6 17.1
7 Harrison Barnes 9.2 9.5 10.1 11.7
3 Otto Porter 2.1 6 11.6 13.4
3 Jaylen Brown 6.6 14.5 13
3 Jayson Tatum 13.9 15.7

Before we go any further with these player comps, let’s consider that context matters. Just ask former #1 pick, Kyrie Irving. Irving said:

”Top picks in the league when I came in, we weren’t on the best teams,” Irving said Wednesday night after downing the Sacramento Kings, 113-86. “We had good players, but us as young guys coming in, I was just expected to get numbers. That attitude kind of stuck with me and turned into some bad habits that I had to break out of as I got older in this league.”

”But they’re at the starting line,” Irving continued, referring to young players today, including Tatum and Brown. “And they’re ahead of the curve in terms of where previous young guys were. Guys are getting better, man. And then when you come into a situation where you have great veterans, it makes their job a lot easier and their learning curve a lot quicker. That’s all you can hope for. The quest for knowledge is never ending, and those guys are thirsty for it. “

With that in mind, Brown and Tatum’s next steps could closely resemble Paul George and Kawhi Leonard’s. Both joined their respective teams with a heavy vet presence already in place. That allowed the Pacers and Spurs to bring them along slowly. Even though both are averaging 30+ minutes, their roles were initially complementary rather than “here’s the ball, go get us a bucket.” They would later grow into All Star players and in Kawhi’s sake, a Finals’ MVP, but it was a deliberate process for both.

In an interview with The Improper Bostonian early last season, Jayson and Jaylen talked about their influences and favorite players growing up:

Tatum: NBA player you admired the most growing up?

Brown: Kobe Bryant.

Tatum: That’s my answer. You can’t choose it.

Brown: I think we think alike.

Tatum: But I’ve heard you say Tracy McGrady before.

Brown: Kobe and T-Mac are my two.

Tatum: I always stay the same. I always say Kobe.

Kobe and TMac aren’t surprising idols for two millenials that grew up on early 2000’s hoops. You can see glimpses of those legends’ games in Boston’s dynamic duo. Both seemed to have patterned their post game after Bryant’s. Brown has featured Kobe’s baseline jumper. Tatum even had a chance to work out with Kobe this summer. Tatum’s wingspan and Brown’s athleticism help them mirror McGrady’s ability to finish at the rim.

Bryant and McGrady both bypassed college and joined the NBA as 18-year-olds fresh off their high school proms, but they weren’t sure fire Hall of Famers at the start of their careers. Bryant’s career took flight in his second season with big help from the arrival of Shaquille O’Neal to Los Angeles. McGrady barely cracked the lineup as a rookie and only really started blossoming in Year 3 after he was paired with his cousin, Vince Carter.

There’s this false narrative that Tatum and Brown’s development could somehow be stunted by the additions of Irving and Hayward, that somehow playing alongside two All-Stars would cast shadows on two young players that need the spotlight. While last year’s unfortunate circumstances might have provided them an opportunity that wouldn’t have otherwise existed, consider 2017-2018 as proof positive of their talent and character. People want to plot their trajectory, but NBA players’ careers don’t always obey the laws of physics. Sometimes, it’s chemical and personally, I don’t see how adding fire to more fire can be bad.

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