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Silver linings in Jayson Tatum’s slow offensive start

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Jayson Tatum has missed a lot of shots to open the season, but his improved shot selection suggests better days on the horizon.

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

After a pair of impressive victories over the defending champion Toronto Raptors and the lowly New York Knicks, the Boston Celtics are 2-1 to begin their young season, fueled by impressive effort on the defensive end of the floor as well as the offensive glass. They’ve been all cylinders except for one: their offense, which has limped through some prolonged stretches of ineffectiveness.

Among the key factors behind the Celtics’ slow offensive start has been Jayson Tatum. Though he’s averaging 20 points per game through the Celtics’ first three games, it’s taken him 20 shots attempts per game to reach that mark. His 46% true shooting percentage ranks second-worst among Celtics averaging at least 20 minutes per game, outranking only Marcus Smart. In other words, he’s been horribly inefficient.

With that said, when you look beyond the ugly surface stats, there’s actually quite a bit of room for optimism with what we’ve seen from Tatum thus far. The results may not look ideal, but the process has actually been quite good. There’s strong reason to believe that Tatum is due for an offensive explosion, and soon.

For starters, the most encouraging aspect of Tatum’s offensive profile is his newfound willingness to let it fly from beyond the arc. His three-point rate has skyrocketed from his first two seasons, accounting for more than 36% of his shot attempts. At 6-foot-8, with his lanky arms and shifty footwork, Tatum can be unguardable when he commits to shooting the three. Thus far this season, he’s cashed in on 45% of those attempts.

This is a substantial step forward from last season, which saw Tatum a little more gun-shy. Too often, he would catch the ball behind the arc with space to shoot, only to put it on the floor and dribble inside. This is where the most frustrating of his mid-range attempts would often occur.

This gets to the crux of why Tatum’s mid-range shots have been so polarizing. It’s not that he should stop attempting them altogether — basketball is far too situational for absolutes — it’s that when he did shoot them, they often came at the expense of more valuable (and more open) looks.

As it always does in the mid-range/three-point conversation, it just comes down to simple math: he shot 39% from the mid-ranges last season and 37% from behind the arc, and only one of those two looks is worth an extra point. He makes this 17-footer, sure, but passes on the open corner three to get it. The trade-off isn’t particularly favorable.

Now, while he three-point shooting has been outstanding, Tatum’s efficiency remains well below average. That tends to happen when you’re shooting just 28% from two-point range. No, that’s not a typo: barely more than a quarter of Tatum’s two-point shots are finding the bottom of the net. For his career, that mark has been 48%.

The causes behind this are a bit more complicated. Tatum is attacking the basket as often as he ever has — 30% of his attempts are coming at the rim, a negligible difference from the 29% he recorded last year. He looks more confident with the ball in his hands, more likely to force the issue in the paint rather than pulling up for a jumper. He’s also getting to the free throw line a fair bit more than last season.

The problem is that while Tatum is getting to the rack effectively, he’s not finding pay dirt when he gets there. He’s shooting a putrid 47% at the rim thus far this season, substantially diminished from the 67% mark he recorded there a season ago. There’s some positive regression coming his way, as there’s an element of bad luck at play. Sometimes the ball just doesn’t roll in your favor.

But if Tatum is going to return to form at the rim, it’s going to require some improvement on his part. He isn’t a terribly strong finisher, and his notoriously unreliable hands don’t seem to help matters, either. Sometimes, it seems like he isn’t sure what the best angle to finish might be. He’s been blocked at the rim more often than a player with his length really should.

Even the much-maligned mid-range shots are falling at a much lower rate than we’re accustomed to. Of his 12 shot attempts between 10 feet and the three-point arc, he’s only cashed in on one: a 14-foot floater.

That floater, by the way, could probably be scrapped for the time being. It might be his worst offensive weapon. He just doesn’t seem to have a strong feel for it, so it typically ends up way off the mark.

The other factor to consider here is the opposition. The Celtics opened the season against a pair of formidable defenses in Philadelphia and Toronto. The Sixers are going to cause everyone problems this year with their colossal starting lineup, while the Raptors are long and versatile. Even the Knicks have a prolific young rim protector in Mitchell Robinson. These teams may not be solely responsible for Tatum’s slump, but they certainly haven’t made it any easier to break out of.

Tatum won’t be shooting 28% from two-point range for much longer, and when that number ticks upwards, he could very likely be primed for a breakout. The truth is that, while Tatum might be loathe to admit it, his offensive game really is becoming more de-Kobe-fied. If he sustains his improved three-point rates while continuing to attack the basket as he has been, that more optimized shot profile will be a huge benefit to the Boston offense.

In other words, if the first three games of the season are anything to go by, we’re inching closer to a more fully realized version of Tatum as an offensive player. Now, the shots just have to start falling. Some of that will come with better luck, and some will come with necessary adjustments on his part. Once his performance inside the arc stabilize, though, there’s a real possibility Jayson Tatum will finally blossom into the number one scoring option we’ve wanted to see him become.