After a breakout rookie campaign in which he helped lead the Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals, it was expected for Jayson Tatum to take the leap during his second year in the NBA that seemingly all stars make at some point early in their careers.
It didn’t come close to happening for Tatum last season with his play regressing instead of taking steps forward.
But just 14 games into his third season with the Celtics, Tatum’s play is on the ascent. And with another sensational performance Wednesday night, this time coming against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers — two players Tatum hopes he one day reaches the status of — the 21-year-old forward is in the midst of taking the highly coveted leap into permanent stardom.
Tatum netted 23 of his game-high 30 points in the second half in the C’s 107-104 overtime road loss to the Clippers, as he shot 12-of-24 from the field, including 5-for-10 from 3-point range. Tatum arguably outperformed Leonard and George on the offensive end — George scored 25 points and Leonard added 17 — as he reached the 30-point mark for just the second time in his 173-game career, according to Celtics Stats.
“This is the opportunity you look for, especially bright lights, big stage,” said Tatum as his only other 30-plus-point game came last year in a midseason loss to the Brooklyn Nets. “You don’t want to back down. You want to compete and show them that you belong out here and just earn their respect. I love competing against those guys.”
Tatum registered easy buckets in the first half by leaking out to start fast breaks, but when situations became more challenging and the baskets tougher to come by over the final 29 minutes, Tatum delivered in a big way.
Tatum scored 14 points in the third quarter as he hit 4-of-5 3-pointers and did so in a myriad of ways. A corner transition trey off a catch-and-shoot unlocked Tatum, who also used screens from Daniel Theis to effectively create space from his defender and knock down long-range shots. It would have been nice to see the 6-foot-8 Tatum accumulate more than two free throw attempts, but he had the hot hand from deep and used it to his advantage.
“He did a good job,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “He was being guarded by Leonard, George and (Patrick) Beverley almost all night. (Tatum) just kept coming at them and that was great.”
Tatum also showcased his natural scoring ability to bail the C’s out on possessions — a necessary trait possessed by stars. So a step-back, fadeaway triple with the shot clock running down and Rodney McGruder right in his airspace was no problem. Tatum swished the shot, almost making it look effortless.
But to be a star, or even a superstar like Leonard and George, there needs to be a penchant to come through in the clutch.
And Tatum did that by dropping George with a crossover (Tatum maybe got away with a push), but more importantly, he sank the ensuing 3-pointer with 13.1 seconds left in regulation, which forced overtime.
That may end up being the moment everyone points to as Tatum’s star arrival. He handled the situation just like Leonard, George or any other star player, by seizing the situation with the pressure at its apex and turning it into his moment.
There’s no denying that Tatum, who is averaging 20.8 points per game and is shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the arc, wants to be considered one of the best at his position, much like Leonard and George. And after his performance against the Clippers, he might be closer to being in that category than many thought.
“I look up to a lot of guys, especially those two at my position,” Tatum said. “Those are two great examples of what I’m trying to get to.”