Jayson Tatum is in his third NBA season. Just let that sink in a moment. Already an All-Star and on his way to becoming a bona fide two-way threat in the league, Tatum is beginning to show the world that he can do it all. Improving on both his offensive and defensive game in the off-season, he is hurting teams in ways that were unfathomable just twelve months ago.
It’s no secret that last year he was infatuated with those long contested two’s. As frustrating as they were, it would seem that they were merely growing pains in his development. Having all but eradicated them from his arsenal of attacking moves this year, Tatum is now thriving.
Instead of those contested mid-range shots, he is driving to the lane with regularity while continuing to shoot a respectable 38.2 percent clip from behind the arc. He hasn’t rested on his laurels either, having made adjustments throughout the season on how he finishes around the rim. To start the year, his shots when driving were not falling.
As the season progresses, so has Tatum’s game. He has developed a reliable inside game when attacking the rim at pace. There is still work to be done, but he has brought his success rate up to 58 percent around the rim, which is only good enough for the 31st percentile according to Cleaning the Glass. That percentage is not worrisome in the slightest, as it took Tatum the better part of three months to figure out the adjustments that needed to be made. He hasn’t looked back since, and that percentage will surely rise over the second part of the season.
When he isn’t driving into the teeth of the defense, he is abusing his defenders out on the perimeter, sizing them up with his dribble moves before creating space with either a ferociously good jab step or his soon to be patented side-step pull back.
Once that space has been created he will rise up for a smooth looking jumper from deep, or drop his shoulder and make his way downhill. It’s his shooting that really separates him from the pack though. His ability to get his shot off so quickly after generating just an inch of breathing room can give his defender fits. Ranking in the 80th percentile for non-corner threes and the 79th percentile for threes overall, Tatum is forcing defenders to guard him outside which allows him opportunities to drive.
Tatum’s scoring ability from deep coupled with the threat he now poses on the drive have lead to him becoming an excellent pick-and-roll player. Synergy ranks him in the 88th percentile when attacking out of pick-and-roll situations, with him scoring 265 points on 260 possessions. That scoring output equates to 44.9 percent from the field and jumps up to 53.7 percent when adjusting the metric to factor in his made threes.
This output is a far cry from the production Boston was getting out of Tatum in pick plays last year. He has already surpassed the amount of possessions he utilized as a ball handler, 189 last year and 265 and counting this year. It’s a testament to the improvements he has shown on offense and a good sign that the game has slowed down for him.
Defensively, there have been improvements too, with the most notable coming in the passing lanes. Averaging 1.4 steals per game this year, Tatum has taken a leap in his court awareness on defense. It’s borderline guaranteed that he will pick a pass off in mid-air at some point each night. He is doing so by positioning his body slightly further from the offensive player’s receiving hand, while ensuring he is cutting off the opportunity for them to turn and cut the basket. Positionally, this is allowing Tatum to see the pass coming which allows him to use his long arms to poke the ball away and get out on the break with ease.
Overall on defense, Synergy has Tatum ranked in the top 15 percent of players league wide. He has defended a specific opponent in man-to-man coverage 504 times, holding them to just 0.84 points per possession which totals 36.5 percent from the field. Fouling has not been an issue for him either, having only sent guys to the line 45 times out of those 500 possessions.
It can’t all be good for the budding superstar however. There are still things which need improvement. Time in the lab must be spent in the off-season if Tatum is truly going to take that next step into super-stardom.
It should start with his handles in transition. When he is dribbling from a stationary motion or at half speed, you can see that some of Kyrie Irving’s influence has rubbed off on him. Get him running and suddenly that handle looks suspect in every sense, he no longer has that tight control over the ball nor are his hips low enough to enable his body to pivot quick enough when defenses are swiping at the rock.
If he can sharpen up that handle when operating at anything resembling speed, it will provide the team with a primary outlet on fast breaks for years to come. With his length and scoring ability this will increase the amount of time Tatum spends at the foul line, which is another reason why this issue needs rectifying.
Next on the checklist is rediscovering his touch from the corner three spot, which has been statistically one of his worst spots on the floor this year. Ranked in the 35th percentile by Cleaning the Glass, he is only shooting 35 percent on the year from either corner.
If he can bring that shooting percentage up closer to 40, then Tatum is a scoring threat from everywhere outside of the break. The possibilities for someone of his size and speed when they are a long range threat from every spot on the floor are endless, it’s only a matter of time until those possibilities are realized.
On defense, there is no glaring hole for him to plug. It’s more of tightening things up rather than learning something new.
Guarding isolation players should be a primary focus in this instance. Currently, Tatum is respectable when guarding guys who choose to go ISO. Potential-wise, he could be great. Lateral quickness, strength and reasonable length are all that is required to become a lock-down defender one-on-one, but only when coupled with laser focus and maximum effort on every play.
Having sent guys to the line 25 percent of the time they isolated him, Tatum could become a point of emphasis for teams with a dominant ball handler come playoff time. He is giving up an adjusted field goal percentage of 38.5 percent along with a foul every fourth play according to Synergy. That is something which can be schemed against over a seven game series, leading to it becoming an area of need in terms of improvement.
All things considered, Tatum is having an exceptional year which has seen him firmly rise into the status of star player. He has achieved that first All-Star appearance, with many more to come. It now comes down to just how much he wants to be great, if he continues to put the work in all year round he will take that next step into the realm of a super star sooner rather than later.