There is nothing noteworthy about traditional slash line averages of 7.6 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.6 assists. Serving as the much-maligned 6’8” starting center for a team that’s erroneously hailed as “a center away” does not elevate Daniel Theis’ reputation much either.
Basketball, however, is not played by Basketball Reference pages or misguided narratives. And when you consider Theis beyond that surface level, you can see a player who is doing something far more important than producing on an individual level: enabling his teammates to be the best players they can be.
Specifically, Theis has transformed Jayson Tatum’s pick-and-roll play, allowing the Celtics’s young star to become an effective finisher at the rim despite his individual limitations as a slasher, derived from a lack of ball control, inability to gather, contact avoidance, and lack of strength.
It’s seemingly in Theis’ blood to seal:
Theis seal. So helpful to the perimeter players pic.twitter.com/sQ5NRaWEV6— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 5, 2020
Theis is always looking to seal for Boston’s perimeter players to find uncontested opportunities at the rim. Here, Theis slips the wing pick-and-roll with Jaylen Brown when he sees Wendell Carter Jr. hedging. Brown kicks the ball to Gordon Hayward, but with Carter recovering firmly behind Theis, he is well positioned to seal off Carter and prevent him from impeding the Hayward closeout attack. The result is an uncontested layup, largely thanks to Theis.
This sort of opportunism as a sealer is ever-present in Theis’s game:
Theis has an incredible penchant and skill for sealing his man, and a couple weeks into the season, it became the solution to one of the biggest problems the Celtics faced in the short and long term.
Jayson Tatum began the 2019-20 season shouldering a heavy creation burden, and it wasn’t going well:
Tatum's used 21 possessions in PnR and Iso and finished 0 of them with a make at the rim— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) October 29, 2019
This is a quintessential early-season Tatum pick-and-roll possession with Theis:
Tatum comes off the ball screen hurriedly, attacks in a straight line, avoids contact with the dropping big man, and throws up a completely hopeless miss.
Rather poetically, everything began to change when Tatum hit the nadir of his season, and frankly, his career:
As far as I know, this was the first instance of the pick-and-roll approach that changed Jayson’s season. He comes off the screen, gets the defender on his back, snakes the action by turning back under the screen in the direction he came from, allows Theis the time to roll, then explodes for the uncontested layup as Theis seals his own man.
Naturally, Tatum flubbed the easy finish on the very first one of these en route to a historically inept performance in which he shot 1-for-18 from the floor. But with a low point well and truly hit, Tatum had nowhere to go but up, and Theis has ensured him the space to do so:
Fantastic PnR from Tatum and Theis. Gets the defender on his back and uses the Theis seal to finish pic.twitter.com/vX2E5Q1lJQ— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) December 19, 2019
Tatum PnR, gets the defender on his back, makes use of the Theis seal, finishes with authority. Theis is so helpful for ball-handlers pic.twitter.com/VJKK4ydKU9— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) December 28, 2019
Jayson Tatum PnR, easy finish courtesy of the Theis seal pic.twitter.com/OxDHfSiyyX— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 10, 2020
Hard to overstate how much Theis helps Tatum as his PnR partner. The snake + seal combo is deadly pic.twitter.com/3U0Fk5YKtc— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 17, 2020
Virtually every game now, there’s a pristine example of Theis enabling Tatum to score at the rim in pick-and-roll. It’s methodical. Tatum comes off the screen, slows it down with his defender on his back, snakes, Theis seals, explosion, uncontested finish.
The duo has been so effective, Tatum finds himself scoring 1.22 points per possession when he takes the ball to the rim out of the pick-and-roll, good for the 73rd percentile on respectable volume, per Synergy. As an overall pick-and-roll scorer, Tatum is scoring 0.934 PPP (75th percentile) on extremely high volume, per Synergy.
While not entirely attributable to pick-and-roll play, you can see the massive uptick in Tatum’s effectiveness at the rim since that first instance of the Theis seal on November 11th against Dallas:
Tatum’s volume and efficiency on attempts within four feet of the rim have spiked since then, and improved pick-and-roll scoring thanks to Theis is undeniably a factor in the equation.
While Tatum and Theis have found a way to create finishing opportunities for the young ball-handler, they will have to develop some more counters:
In a case where Ben Simmons goes under the screen and seems to consciously take away Tatum’s preferred snake back to his right hand, the star wing appears helpless, and puts up an ugly attempt.
Jayson has various options here. There’s a relatively easy window to Theis on the roll if he can pass over the top in the way his 6’9” frame should enable. After Tobias Harris rotates over to the Theis roll from the corner, there’s a difficult but makeable skip to Marcus Smart, too.
Alternatively, Tatum could avoid getting into a must-pass situation in the first place if his man is going under the screen. At the point of the screen, he could use a re-screen and get into his lethal pull-up:
Tatum great timing helping on the spin to force the turnover then hitting a pull-up 3 pic.twitter.com/Wg1dpkj51D— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) November 21, 2019
Patrick Beverley goes under, so Theis re-screens. Tatum doesn’t really even use the re-screen—he has enough space to get his high release off without it—but it’s this approach that could be a valuable counter to opponents going under and preventing the snake and seal. As one of the best wing pull-up shooters in the league, it should prove a potent countermeasure:
Another update to pull-up 3-point shooting by NBA wings (attempts per game, %):— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 21, 2020
PG: 3.7, 40.6
Kawhi: 2.4, 32.5
Butler: 1.6, 21.7
Middleton: 2.1, 40.5
Tatum: 3.9, 37.3
As they have all year, PG and Tatum stand alone in terms of volume and efficiency
That said, Tatum and Theis must continue to develop counters and counters to counters and so forth. Theis’ unique unselfishness and quiet impact have enabled Tatum to grow immensely and thrive, but teams are already adjusting, and there is no doubt they’ll be that much more attuned to the pairing’s tendencies come the playoffs.
Early in the season, the organization’s faith in Jayson Tatum as a high-volume on-ball creator was looking regrettably misplaced, but with intelligent adjustments from the coaching staff and unsung impact from the Celtics’s forgotten starter, Tatum has become a very successful pick-and-roll scorer. By replicating that problem-solving process, the Celtics and their young star should be equipped to keep countering back.