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Jayson Tatum’s evolution deserving of an All-Star selection

This Tatum, the evolved Tatum, is doing almost everything right on the floor.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, there was a computer game released by Nintendo which took the world by storm. The premise of the game was to collect characters and use them in battle, the ones most used would eventually level up and evolve. This game was called Pokemon.

The first installment was released in 1996, two years before Jayson Tatum was born. Ironically, the year Tatum was born was also the year the Celtics drafted franchise legend Paul Pierce. Nineteen years later, the Celtics drafted Tatum to add to their young core of Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.

Since then Tatum has started every game he has been available for, totaling 179 regular season games and 28 playoff games. With the experience he has accumulated from these games, it’s no wonder we are beginning to see the start of his evolution and just like in Pokemon, Tatum’s experience points have continued to build, allowing him to learn new skills and eventually ascend to a new level of player. He is far from finished though.

While this evolution has propelled Tatum into a genuine All-Star candidate to start the year, it did not come without growing pains. His rookie season was a whirlwind, starting every game alongside star veterans such as Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. There was no early reprieve from the pressures of the league. He was thrust into a larger role within the team following his Gordon Hayward’s horrific leg break on the opening night of the season.

Handling his new found role impeccably, Tatum burst onto the scene while helping lead the team to an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. He finished that season averaging 13.9 points, 5 rebounds and 1.6 assists over 80 regular season games. During that playoff run, his numbers jumped to 18.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game.

He finished the year third in Rookie of the Year voting behind the impressive Donovan “Spida” Mitchell and “not really a rookie” Ben Simmons. You could tell right then that this kid was special, a rare talent that could only be found in the most remote of regions if this really was a late 90’s computer game.

That summer, Tatum got the chance to work with one of his basketball idols, Kobe Bryant. We didn’t know it at that moment, but this would become a talking point throughout the subsequent season.

The much maligned season of 2018-2019 was Tatum’s second in the league. His previous exploits had increased the expectations on his shoulders tremendously, while working with Kobe had fans salivating at the possible jump he could make on offense. Alas, it wasn’t to be, instead Tatum was almost a shadow of the player who broke out in the previous year. Second-season syndrome was a genuine issue for Tatum throughout that season.

There was no visible jump to Tatum’s game. Instead, bad habits were tipping the scales towards regression. Gone were the smooth drives or smart shots from the previous year. Now we were being treated to contested long range two’s, fadeaways, and a reluctance to attack the paint.

Shots like this littered his game for the entirety of the year. Granted on this specific play he had daylight to pull the trigger, but he also had space to attack the rim or make the extra pass. Instead he opts for a two-point shot that is barely a step away from the three-point line.

He wasn’t alone in his struggles though. The whole team stuttered through that season, failing to live up to their billing as one of the premiere teams in the league.

A the end his second year, Tatum was averaging 15.7 points on almost 3 extra shots per game, 2.1 assists and 6 rebounds over 79 games. During the playoff’s his averages were 15.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game over the course of the nine games he played in. That’s 10 playoff games less than the previous year.

This summer, there were no workouts with stars of yesteryear for Tatum. Instead, he spent it in China at the FIBA World Cup with Team USA.

Playing against international competition and learning from one of the all-time great coaches in Greg Popovich seems to have done wonders for Tatum’s development. A subplot of this trip was the amount of Celtics on the USA roster, which allowed them to develop chemistry before training camp had begun. Both of these are currently paying dividends for Boston.

Those games in China seem to have been the tipping point in “experience points” and Tatum has since evolved and he’s a totally different prospect to the one who left the court following their dissection at the hands of the Bucks just a few months prior.

This Tatum, the evolved Tatum, is doing almost everything right on the floor. Patient on offense he sets up defenders over the course of multiple plays and he makes the extra pass when required. His improvements span to the defensive end too, with 15 blocks and 30 steals over his first 21 games of the season. He closes out passing lanes and uses his length to disrupt shots.

The long mid-range game is still there, but to a much lesser extent.

This would probably been a deep jump shot last year, coming off his man with a glimmer of daylight to the basket. Not this year though. Instead, he surveys the floor, drops his shoulder and drives the lane.

Now for all the improvements Tatum has displayed this year. His finishing around the rim has been questionable and that’s OK. Minor adjustments in speed when attacking the glass and a softer release will resolve those troubles. It might take some time, but it will happen.

However, scoring on all three levels has allowed Tatum to abuse opposing defenders at will. If they close out, he will beat them off the dribble and if they sag off, he will drain a jumper right in their grill.

Tatum has started the season in All-Star form. Cleaning the Glass has Tatum in the 94th percentile for points allowed per possession. Opponents are scoring 9.8 points less per 100 possessions when Tatum is on the floor. Boston is also posting a difference rating of 17.5 points per 100 possessions when Tatum is on the floor, ranking him in the 99th percentile.

Over the first 21 games of the season, Tatum is averaging 21.2 points, 7 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He is doing this on splits of 40.5 percent from the field, 34.8 percent from deep, and 82.4 percent from the line. These percentages should continue to rise as the season progresses, especially if he can figure out his issues with finishing around the rim.

He is affecting games in a multitude of ways and he is only getting started. It’s scary to think that he is just 21-years-old. There is another evolution to come from him further down the line. For now though, this evolved version of Tatum is deserving of an All-Star selection should his current form continue, one which will be the first of many.

Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens must have rocked at Pokemon.

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