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Jayson Tatum and the art of getting to the free throw line

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Jayson Tatum has continued his growth as a professional scorer.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Tatum is very good at basketball. It shouldn’t be, but it feels necessary to remind people of that. All too often, discussion around Tatum focuses on minor annoyances and ignores that he’s a 6-foot-9, 20-year-old basketball savant who creates offense for himself at a high level and generates massive impact as an off-ball defender for a legitimate Finals contender.

He’s not perfect though. Tatum has flaws. Most notably and controversially, his shot distribution this year has fluctuated somewhere between abysmal and simply bizarre. Tatum’s mid-range heavy apportionment of shots (he’s in the 89th percentile in mid-range frequency among forwards) has proved a burden on his efficiency, his true shooting percentage falling to a barely-league-average 55.7 percent from 58.6 percent in his stellar rookie year.

Tatum, however, has debuted a new skill set in recent games that offers hope he’ll be able to compensate for his frustrating shot mix and remedy his lagging efficiency. Free throws are important, because they’re easy points, which allows them to boost efficiency, and the whole game is decided by which team uses its possessions more efficiently.

But, it’s not easy to actually earn the opportunity to take a stroll to the charity stripe. The NBA’s most devastating scorers—James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Joel Embiid—they’ve all mastered the art. Tatum’s learning.

I first noticed Tatum’s altered approach in the January 14th game vs. the Brooklyn Nets:

Especially in the post, Tatum was looking to turn into contact rather than fade away into his patented post turnaround. Seeking contact in the post is something he’s continued to do since that game in Brooklyn:

Tatum is an arm-seeking missile who regularly locates flailing limbs and forces his shot into the path, drawing contact and those cherished trips to the free throw line. Less consistently, he’s even extended this habit to drives:

This is black magic yanked right from James Harden’s book of spells. Locate the defender’s arms, move the ball into their path, generate a mess, and wait for the sweet sound of the whistle:

Tatum’s inspiration is not just limited to Harden, though. From Kevin Durant, he seems to have stolen the rip-through:

The rip-through is a favorite of the oversized wing with an unguardable release point who lives in the mid-post. You face up, wait for them to reach, terrified that that jumper’s flying over them without even a semblance of a contest, and you teach.

Dedicated to the art of foul-drawing now, Jayson’s also mixing in some pump-fake chicanery:

This is a classic, a staple of the foul-drawer’s arsenal, yet one Tatum’s generally been very hesitant to deploy in the past, instead preferring to capitalize on his pump-fakes by stepping into long 2’s. It might not be pretty, but this is a welcome improvement on the Costco Kobe version of Tatum we got in October.

I understand the opposition to foul-drawing. It’s not always fun to watch. It feels…cheap. But reality is that being a star scorer in the NBA means acting, embellishing, manipulating the rules to shift the odds in your favor. Kevin Garnett recently spoke to Tatum about getting with Paul Pierce who could teach a masterclass in the art of getting to the line.

If Jayson Tatum is going to be the player he needs to be, if he’s going to grow from very good at basketball to truly special, he needs to be comfortable operating in the shadows of NBA stardom. Over the last month, he’s demonstrated a newfound aptitude for surviving—thriving even—there. It might not feel big or bold or sexy, but it’s one of the more important developments he’s made this year.