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How has Jayson Tatum changed his game to lead the Celtics?

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Tatum has made necessary adjustments, while the offense has empowered him to flash them. With Kemba Walker in and out of the lineup, he’s among the best forwards creating through the pick-and-roll.

Boston Celtics v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum called the mesmerizing game of his career a step in the right direction. He owes Daniel Theis a watch, or something, for how much Theis frees him. His goal is to gain acceptance among the league’s greats, who now praise him with competitive admiration.

That, too, rings differently from him and a Celtics team humbled by last season’s abundant confidence that lacked results. Jaylen Brown prepared mentally for the Finals before the opening tip of that year. Expectations around Tatum reached hall-of-fame level, while the group collectively expected to be in the championship. That team’s dynamic did little to productively foster the early returns Tatum’s game yielded.

19 became 20 real quick.

Adjustment is nothing new for Tatum, a pro-style prospect, per his trainer, who needed to adjust to a college system. Tatum’s rookie year marked a notable transition from what scared draft types away from declaring him an indisputable No. 1 pick. He posted-up often at Duke. He rarely shot threes and made them at an inefficient clip. The offense flowed through Grayson Allen, while Tatum’s defensive footwork troubled evaluators on a team that played plenty of zone.

Before the balls rolled out in Vegas within weeks of his name being called to Boston, he had already shifted his game to the perimeter. This season, he transformed his game again to adapt to a larger role alongside a new point guard more capable of shifting on and off the ball.

Kemba Walker finished 2019 as the primary scorer for the Celtics (22.4 PPG), with shooting efficiency Tatum lacked. The rim proved to be Tatum’s biggest challenge, where he struggled to shoot 50% some nights — where the Celtics needed him to approach 60%.

Tatum heard the calls. He needed to drive more, reach the free throw line, cut off the flat-footed mid range fadeaways. The offense didn’t afford him many opportunities each game to work through it in 18-19. As Coach Nick pointed out, the Celtics made Tatum their sixth option in touches per game. This year, he propelled to second.

That allowed Tatum to work through his interior struggles, something he solved by progressively slowing the game down at the rim. He’s become a pick-and-roll maestro, one able to comfortably dominate the offense in Walker’s absence. Tatum pops around ball screens to drill threes the same way Walker does, with nearly the exact same points per possession on those players (Walker 1.1, Tatum 1.08). Nick noted he’s drilling 49% of those threes.

Lethal shooting efficiency drove his stellar rookie season. Then it leveled out naturally, without the consistent driving to keep defenders from running him off the line. Tatum is not one of the best shooters in the NBA, so he could never entirely rely on it. He doubled his drives per game, working through New Year’s Eve shooting 52.9% within five feet, then from that point on increasing to 59.5% — better than Jaylen Brown during that time.

Meshing productively alongside Brown bodes best from Tatum’s ascent. While Tatum dished out his 41 points on the Lakers’ defense, Brown reached 20 points — as he’s done each of the last four games. Brown is averaging 20.4 PPG and scored a massive three while LA blitzed Tatum late. Those two’s games complement rather than contrast, and Brown shares a flare for the big moment.

“(Tatum)’s confidence,” Jeff Goodman said on a recent podcast, remembering Tatum’s early struggles around the basket. “That’s the biggest difference.”