Oh, to return to the halcyon days of the 2018 offseason, the summer of boundless optimism. Fresh off in improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were due to return a pair of All-Stars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and finally lay siege to the league how we all believed them to be capable. Unaware of the months of frustration ahead of us, we spent the summer debating things that seem downright quaint in retrospect. What would the starting lineup be? Would they win 67 games? Were the Toronto Raptors anything to be worried about?
Chief among those debates: the respective merits of the Celtics’ two foundational young wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The third overall picks from the 2016 and 2017 NBA Drafts have been inextricably linked together through their early seasons in the league. With Anthony Davis looming large on the horizon, it’s only natural that the two will be evaluated in terms of their comparative value. It’s the unfortunate consequence of a Danny Ainge-led franchise: his proclivity for home run swings on the trade market makes every player feel like an asset to be evaluated.
Now, with Tatum slumping and Brown surging in recent weeks, the debate has been rekindled to some extent. While we can’t precisely predict what NBA teams might value when the offseason comes around, it’s worth taking a moment to re-evaluate the young forward duo to see if anything has meaningfully changed as the season has progressed.
You may have heard, but Jayson Tatum is in a bit of a slump. A “28% from the three-point line since the All-Star Break” kind of slump. After canning a cool 43% of his triples as a rookie, his three-point percentage has plummeted down to a roughly league average 36% in his second season. This is not as substantial a concern as it seems — he endured a similar stretch in the middle of last season and recovered well, and during his memorable tear during last year’s playoffs, he shot just 32% from behind the arc. He’s proven he can excel even when the threes aren’t dropping.
What is a concern is Tatum’s utter futility in isolation sets. He has been, without exaggeration, one of the worst isolation players in all of basketball this season. Among players who isolate on at least 10% of their touches, Tatum has posted a gruesome 0.64 points per possession on such looks, ranking far below even ineffectual players like Collin Sexton (0.72) and Dion Waiters (0.75). His effective field goal percentage in ISO situations is a miserable 34.4%. Poor shot selection remains a chief culprit behind this.
Dismal as things may seem offensively, the other end of the floor has proven to be a significant positive. At this stage, Tatum may be the best off-ball defender on the team, Marcus Smart notwithstanding. His sheer length combined with his rapidly developing feel for timing and positioning makes him an absolute nightmare for opposing passers. He’s already a reliable source of both steals and blocks, with plenty of seasoning still ahead of him.
Another trend worth noting: March was the best passing month of Tatum’s young career thus far, as he dished 38 assists (3.5 per game) across from just 18 turnovers and recorded at least two dimes in all but one game for the month. Tatum’s playmaking has always been a little bit better than people might think; he’s capable of making very good reads, but his assist totals have remained low as the Celtics have deployed him as more of a play finisher than an initiator.
On Tuesday night, the defensively challenged Cleveland Cavaliers were perhaps the perfect prescription for Tatum’s scoring woes. He recorded just his fifth 20+ point game since the beginning of February, scoring a team-high 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting (including three triples). It wasn’t a perfect performance — he disappeared from the offense in the second half, attempting just two shots — but it was doubtless an encouraging change of pace for the young forward.
In all, it doesn’t feel like the outlook has changed too drastically for Jayson Tatum. His second NBA season hasn’t gone quite as expected, and his post-All Star scoring slump has doubtless been disappointing, but his overall toolkit as a player has continued to diversify. He’s the best young asset the Boston Celtics have, and still looks like a future centerpiece. It will take quite a bit more than a month of poor shooting for that to change.
While Tatum has struggled since the All-Star Break, Brown has been thriving. March has been one of the most productive months of his NBA career to-date, with a true shooting percentage of 60%. His shift to the bench back in November has proven to be a boon for his season; he’s developed into a spark plug on the second unit who infuses the team with energy when he takes the court, and his burgeoning chemistry with Gordon Hayward has afforded him better offensive looks than his time with the starting lineup.
While he hasn’t consistently recaptured his shooting brilliance from last season, but since the start of the new year, Brown has eked past league average as a three-point shooter at 37%, and his scoring has diversified nicely. He’s shooting 66% at the rim — up from 62% last season — and he’s starting to sprinkle in some bona fide go-to moves while hunting for his shot. The raw athleticism we’ve become accustomed to seeing is starting to show some refinement.
While exciting, Brown’s defense remains somewhat unrefined. He’s as athletic as any player in the league, making him a ferocious on-ball defender when fully engaged. However, much the inverse to Tatum, defending off the ball remains something of a trouble spot. He’s prone to mental lapses that can be frustrating at times — missed rotations or poorly timed help defense. He gets caught drifting in space far too often, which leaves him vulnerable to great off-ball scorers like Philadelphia’s JJ Redick.
Brown also remains fairly dependent on his teammates to create his opportunities for him. He’s equally as ineffectual as Tatum in ISO situations (0.61 PPP, though those looks account for just 3% of his possessions), and he offers very little as a passer, overall. These aren’t particularly bad things for a player who shares the court with playmakers like Hayward and Al Horford, but they do inherently lower his ceiling as an individual. He’s a complementary guy, where Tatum is the centerpiece.
Brown’s overall stock has certainly fallen from last season — nobody’s realistically comparing him to Kawhi Leonard anymore — but his fade from public consciousness feels overly steep. His first two months were exceptionally poor, but positive regression to the mean has put him back on the path to NBA contribution that we all expected from him: solid two-way production, athleticism and energy, with a serviceable jumper to boot. Is he likely to be a legitimate NBA star? Probably not. But he’s the kind of player who could start for years to come, and that carries plenty of value for any team.