The most important developments of young players are the skills they add to impact the game outside of scoring. This year’s version of Jayson Tatum would still be a good player without a developed offensive game, which isn’t something that could be said the past two years. That is to say, Tatum can still be an asset on the court when his shot isn’t falling.
In Toronto, Tatum scored 11 points on 5-18 shooting and added nine rebounds, six assists, and two steals. This is the fourth game this season in which Tatum had at least five assists, after having five such games all of last season. It was also his 10th game with at least nine rebounds, after having twelve such games last year.
When I think of players who do “all the little things” I tend to think about Marcus Smart’s early seasons where he sprinkled in a few hustle plays here and there. I think about Grant Williams’ subtle screen setting skills. I never thought about these contributions in the type of volume that Tatum has added in 2019-2020. This isn’t to say Tatum’s contributions are unprecedented, but slightly unexpected based on typical player development for the Celtics. Boston’s prospects tend to start off as defensive-minded, and slowly form their identity on offense over time. Tatum has reversed that timeline.
Here’s a neat little package of Tatum’s improved court awareness:
Moving from the paint to the wing to keep and eye on Serge Ibaka isn’t complicated, but I’ve always felt that the Brad Stevens-era Celtics are prone to ball-watching if possessions went on for too long. Tatum was rewarded here for adjusting his position to the Raptors’ ball movement and grabs the steal. He makes the heads-up pass in transition look easy as well, although it’s not something we would expect from him over the past couple years.
Tatum also has a unique tendency to block shots from behind the shooter:
And he gets Graham again later:
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Tatum is almost letting guys get by him so he can recover for an unexpected block. Either way, the fact that he can switch onto someone small like Graham and stop drives is huge for Boston’s team defense, and part of the reason they’re fourth in defensive rating.
I can’t think of many shot blockers than aren’t known to be rim protectors, but that’s the case with Tatum. It reminds me a bit of the original chase-down block specialist, Tayshaun Prince, who used his length in a similar way.
For what it’s worth, my perception of Tatum’s improvement doesn’t quite match the stats. His greatest jump is his scoring, which is up to 21.7 points per game, up from last season’s average of 15.7. In each other stat, the increases are very incremental.
Still, these are the improvements that move a player from “fringe All-Star” to “definite All-Star” to “is this guy a top 10-15 player” territory. The league will always have it’s share of volume scorers. But there won’t ever be an abundance of two-way players who can put up 20 or more points on a given night.
The Celtics have three and two of them are still on their first NBA contracts. I’m usually not one to get ahead of myself on player projections, but Tatum’s all-around improvements have him on track as a future All-NBA player.