Judging a players growth can be a difficult task. What you see on the court and what computes in the analytics can often be miles apart. It is possible that both aspects are correct though. Sometimes improvements take time to reflect positively from a percentages aspect.
Herein lies the problem for Boston’s third-year wing, Jayson Tatum, who was mentioned during a recent episode of The Jump as being 6th in the league in real plus-minus. That’s right. Sixth in the entire NBA. But how can this be when his offensive stats are down across the board?
Having made notable adjustments to his game over the summer, Tatum is now attacking offenses in new ways. He no longer relies on mid-range jumpers to score the lion’s share of his points. Instead, he is keeping defenses guessing with smart drives, an improved dribble, and better looks from deep.
The on-court action is slowing down for him, which in turn enables him to attack the game more methodically. There are less ill-timed shots early in possessions, and he now dribbles with purpose, setting up his opponents with an array of moves (most notably his behind the back jab-step step-back).
This is where the correlation between improvements in his game and a poor analytics can actually make sense.
Let’s start with his finishing around the rim. According to Cleaning the Glass Tatum shot 68 percent (197/311) from within 4 feet of the rim last season, which was good for the 58th percentile. Fast-forward to this year and you could be forgiven for thinking he has regressed. Over the 24 games Tatum has participated in this year, he has already taken 120 shots from four feet or less. He has scored 62 of them which is good for 52 percent.
That is already more than a third of his attempts from last year, on roughly a quarter of the amount of games. On average this equates to 7.1 attempts at the rim per game compared to his 3.9 attempts last year.
Tatum’s willingness to drive the lane is a welcomed addition to his offensive approach. He forces defenders to make a tough choice between dropping to defend the drive or closing out to defend the three. He’s struggling to finish, but that should change as he learns to control his speed and body positioning.
Now lets look at how he has begun to attack the “short mid-range” area, which is typically defined as anywhere between four to fourteen feet from the basket. This area is not typically a hot zone for Tatum, although his success within this range has continued to improve every year.
When coming off of a screen, he is choosing to drive into the mid-range area which allows him to survey the defenses’ reaction and act accordingly. This is where he is getting most of his success from the short mid-range area, often by releasing floaters over his man or the opposing big.
To date, he has attempted 80 shots within this range and hit 32 of those for an even 40 percent, placing him in the 52nd percentile of wings across the league. Last year he only took 171 shots from this range, meaning this area is becoming a focus point for Tatum.
Having almost taken half the amount of shots in only 24 games indicates he feels he can become a weapon from this range. He is also scoring them more efficiently this year, improving on his 36 percent conversion rate from last year. Over time he will become more comfortable with this range and learn new ways to inflict damage. Right now it’s just about figuring out what works against different types of players and figuring out how to assert this strategy during high intensity situations.
At the end of the 2018-19 regular season, Tatum had attempted 238 long two’s. For clarity, a long mid-range shot is considered to be anywhere between the free-throw line and the three point line. He went 90/238 which is good for 38 percent, ranking him in the 46th percentile.
This year, however, he has taken just 72 shots and scored 23 of them. These shots are low percentage looks. The more he can refrain from settling for them, the better his overall offensive impact will be. Granted, there will be times when a play breaks down and the ball finds Tatum with seconds left on the shot clock. You live with those. As a rule of thumb though, he should be looking to drive or shoot the three. He is doing that this year.
Beyond the arc is where Tatum looks most likely to hurt the opposition. His smooth jumper and picturesque release will be on many highlight reels when all is said and done. He is struggling to start the year though. Having burst onto the scene as a sharp-shooting rookie, draining 52 percent from the corners and 44 percent overall from deep. He is now finding it hard to connect regularly from that distance.
To his credit, teams have started to scheme for him now. He is a borderline All-Star on a playoff team. But with his shots struggling to fall at the rim he needs to find his rhythm from three. Having taken 32 shots from the corner over these last 24 games, he has connected on just 9 of them. That’s just 28 percent, good for the 12th percentile.
His spot seems to be closer to the elbow or top of the three point line. His percentages soar from those spots. He has taken 127 non-corner threes and sunk 49 of them. That’s a 39 percent success rate, which pushes him into the top 73 percent of wings in the league.
If he can improve his consistency from the corners, there is no reason Tatum cannot end the season as a 40-45 percent scorer from deep. He is already sitting at 36.4 percent according to Basketball Reference.
Tatum has improved his shot selection this year. Unfortunately, these improvements haven’t translated to a higher efficiency yet. They may not translate for the whole season either. What is clear though is Tatum is learning to attack the game rather than settling.
He is still only 21-years-old, and carries a huge offensive load for this team. He will continue to get better for a long time to come. Let’s enjoy watching this young talent blossom into one of the better players in the NBA over the next few years. For this year however, it may be better to judge him with the eye test rather than the numbers.
*All stats unless stated otherwise, have been acquired from Cleaning the Glass. This website uses an in-built garbage time filter, as such, some of the percentages may differ from other mainstream websites.*