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Jayson Tatum & the art of shot selection maintenance

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In his third season, Tatum is primed for a star turn.

Eastern Conference Semifinals - Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

With the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, there’s been a perceived leadership void created with arguably the Celtics most talented player and most important player from last season now playing for Atlantic Division rivals. However, this summer, Jayson Tatum has grabbed the wheel. He’s taken some credit for recruiting Kemba Walker to Boston during a Jordan Brand tour in Europe and this week, he’s teaming up with Walker and teammates Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart for USA Basketball. Oh, and he’s become the face of Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fierce cologne.

Tatum said about next season, “I’m really looking to take a bigger jump. Be more vocal, be more of a leader. Just be a better version of myself.” During his rating reveal for NBA 2K20, he predicted an All-Star campaign for himself and a championship run for the team.

Tatum’s 2K rating dropped from 87 to 85, despite modest increases in points, rebounds, and assists from his rookie season. The “disrespectful” decrease could be attributed to his drops in shooting percentages, a trend that personal skills coach, Drew Hanlen, noted to The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach. Hanlen believes that Tatum settled too much for mid-range jumpers and predicts a more aggressive season as he enters Year 3.

“Driving and getting downhill through contact and being able to finish around the rim is our No. 1 focus,” Hanlen said. “And then consistency when he’s shooting off the dribble or off a full-speed move from the 3-point line. Those are our two things, just getting to the rim and drawing fouls, and finishing when you do get to the rim, and then consistency with threes. We just want him to be more efficient, and we think he will be. He’s as locked in as I’ve ever seen him. He’s very, very locked in.”

The focus on Tatum’s mid-range jumpers is a bit overblown however. In his rookie year, 25.5% of his field goal attempts came from outside of the paint and inside the three-point line; to his credit, he shot 43.7% from the mid-range, above the league average of 40.3%. Last season, the distribution went up slightly to 26.6%, but his shooting percentage dropped to 36.6%.

Having a strong mid-range game can seem counterintuitive in the modern NBA. With analytically minded teams pushing their shot charts to outside of the arc and towards the rim, the art of the fifteen footer is lost. However, that’s now the soft spot of many defenses and a prime space to attack and some of the league’s best scorers live there.

The most frequent mid-range shooters in the NBA are DeMar DeRozan (7.2 FGA per game, 40.5%), teammate LaMarcus Aldridge (7.1, 44.9%), Kevin Durant (5.7, 55.1%), Klay Thompson (5.1, 45.3%), and Kawhi Leonard (5.5, 45.9%). It’s a who’s who of All Stars with wide-ranging success from what is widely considered the inefficient part of the floor. Outside of Aldridge, the mid-range shot is a necessary evil.

Tatum doesn’t have Durant’s length or Kawhi’s strength and relies heavily on his shake-and-bake bag of tricks to get off shots. It’s pretty when they go in, but the misses come off as sizzle with no steak. For what it’s worth, Tatum hasn’t been awful with the ball in his hands. Per Second Spectrum tracking data at NBA Stats, he’s shooting 47.1% on two-point shots after 3-6 dribbles and 45.2% on possessions where his touch time ranged between 2 to 6 seconds. While a point guard’s job is to make quick decisions off of a screen, a wing’s game is paced a little slower, more probing and deliberate.

Consider where Tatum will be attacking from. Most offensive sets start with either a point guard or big man in the middle of the floor, flanked by wing shooters ready to attack closeouts. That shouldn’t change too much with Kemba replacing Kyrie as Boston’s primary ball handler. If Tatum isn’t catching and shooting off dribble penetration, he’ll be driving with the defense in rotation. And as Hanlen notes, that should lead to more rim attempts and free throws.

These are seemingly small tweaks, but if just two or three field goal attempts turn into an extra three pointer or trips to the free throw line, that could be the difference of Tatum scoring a handful of points more per game. And frankly, it’s really all tied together. A more aggressive Tatum puts defenders on tilt. If they’re expecting more threes and drives, they’ll be more apt to contest or be on their heels backpedaling. That, in turn, should free him up for easier mid-range jumpers (gasp!). The obsession over Tatum’s shot selection isn’t necessarily a binary “this is a good shot, this is a bad shot” argument. It’s more so knowing that Tatum is capable of more and it’s that 5-10% that could be the difference between promising young player to perennial All-Star.