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A closer look at Jayson Tatum’s struggles around the rim

The last glaring weakness in Tatum’s game is his ability to finish at the rim. More specifically, he struggles to maintain control of the ball through contact and use his length to squeeze the ball through at tough angles.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Jayson Tatum has one more hurdle to cross to match Jaylen Brown’s offensive leap this season: finishing through contact. While his overall stats average out to what looks like an all-star resume, his lack of consistency on a game-to-game basis could cost him.

Let’s look at a two-game sample size out of context, for example: 20.5 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks. 45.2% from the field, 33.3% from three, 91.7% from the free throw line on six attempts.

I think we would agree these stats pretty accurately represent Tatum’s production this year. Now, let’s look at each of the two games individually:

January 3rd vs Atlanta: 2-16 shooting, 13 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 0-2 from three, 9/10 on FTs

January 4th vs Chicago: 12-15 shooting, 28 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 2-4 from three, 2-2 on FTs.

Neither of those lines should stand out as an aberration. You probably remember him shooting 1-for-18 against Dallas just as well as you remember him shooting 15-for-29 on his way to a career-high 39 against Charlotte. This inconsistency has been a pattern for Tatum, who seems to live and die by how many layups he can make in a given game.

There’s a thread on Twitter about how Tatum’s body type affects his play, which is one of the most fascinating explanations I’ve seen:

The second point in the first tweet about bringing the ball too low is something I think is worth a closer look. Tatum has a tendency to bring the ball below his waist on a drive before going up with it to what seems like very little or no benefit.

My guess is that he does it instinctively, knowing how often the ball gets poked away from him. Jordan McCrae takes a swipe at the ball in this play, and Tatum reacts by bringing the ball to his knees. That’s a lot of extra motion on a shot attempt in contrast to how Jaylen Brown has been finishing plays like he does here:

This, I think, is half the reason Jaylen Brown has seen such an efficiency spike this year (the other half being his outstanding outside shooting). Tatum will occasionally do this too, making the play look almost effortless:

The key here is that Tatum initiates the contact himself to carve out space to score. The Celtics have done this a lot as a team this season, especially in pick-and-roll plays. There’s also a lot less arm movement in general, which means less opportunity to lose control of the ball or lose his balance.

But if there were ever a play to encapsulate the difference between Brown and Tatum’s ability to play through contact in one possession, it would be this:

This time, Tatum bounces off two defenders before throwing an off-balance pass to Brown, who goes straight through Isaac Bonga without a problem. As a bonus: check out the seal by Grant Williams on the Brown drive.

Just like the clip above, Brown keeps the ball high when he gets to the rim so that nobody can swipe it away from him.

The most obvious solution might be for Tatum to add more mass to push through defenders, but that doesn’t seem like a viable solution in the short term. One option is to take more floaters, which he’s gotten fairly good at. Another would be to spin away to hide the ball completely:

It’s a great move, but even in this clip, Tatum brings the ball down low before going up, giving a help defender an extra fraction of a second to contest the shot. The way I see it, the advantage of having such long arms is negated if that length is used to bring the ball as far away from the basket as possible before going up with it.

The peculiar thing is that Tatum is shooting worse at close distances this year than previous years by a huge margin. By almost every possible metric, Tatum looks like a better all-around basketball player, so why the regression in this one area?

I don’t know for sure, but Tatum has been assisted by a teammate on far less of his made field goals than in previous years. Per Basketball-Reference, nearly 56% of his two-point field goals were assisted in his rookie season. That number dropped to 49% last season, and is at 47% this season. Behind the arc, 92% of his three-pointers were assisted in his rookie year, which fell to 85% the next year, and is down to 61% this year. It seems that Tatum is doing a lot more work on his own this season, and his efficiency is suffering as a result.

Jaylen Brown has also been assisted less on his two-point field goals, but, as we’ve seen, he’s been able to do so by playing through contact. His three-point shots don’t really compare to Tatum’s, as Brown has taken 60 more shots on spot-ups, per Synergy, while Tatum has taken about 70 more shots in isolation.

Ultimately, both Tatum and Brown have mostly taken the right shots this season. The difference with Tatum pretty clearly boils down to his slenderness, and some excessive forced shots that get thrown up in frustration. I’m on board in voting him into the All-Star game, but I also think he’s a notch behind Brown, if I had to pick one.

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