Just about every great scorer in the NBA has had their signature shot – the one they go to in crucial moments, the one that leaves opponents with that dreaded feeling of inevitability once the ball leaves their hands. Kareem had his sky hook, Dirk had his one-legged fadeaway, and today, Harden has his deadly step-back. And yes, I know I’m getting carried away, and Jayson Tatum is not nearly at the level of any of these players, but this season, as he has developed into an All-Star, Tatum, too has developed a signature shot of his own – the side-step three.
Unlike Harden or Luka Doncic today, who have trademarked the step-back three, Tatum doesn’t necessarily take a step backwards in his shot, rather it’s more of a slide sideways – almost like a side-step in a waltz. With Kemba Walker out on Wednesday night against the Magic, Tatum took over in the fourth and showed why he was deserving of that All-Star berth with a 13-point outburst that was, not for the first time this season, punctuated by two of his side-step threes.
The first came with just under 7 minutes left in the final period and Celtics up 96-91. As the shot clock was running down, Tatum sized up Michael Carter-Williams before exploding off his right leg to create separation and get the shot off. The result: butter.
The dagger to close the game was even prettier. After getting the match up he wanted against Markelle Fultz, Tatum dribbled over to the left wing--where he’s shot much more efficiently than the right this season—and again burst off his right into a smooth release to extend the Celtics lead to 13 with under two minutes to go.
Tatum loves using the shot when he gets a mismatch, too. With bigger defenders, his slide sideways is so quick, and he gets the shot off fast enough, that big men don’t have a chance to close out and get in a good contest. With smaller defenders, like Fultz above, he creates enough separation to rise above.
My favorite three came in the blowout home win against Denver on national TV from December where, with the Garden rocking after a big Celtics run and the clock winding down, Tatum sizes up the bigger Juancho Hernangomez and sinks a side-step (to the right this time) right in his face before skipping away triumphantly.
I mean, I could watch these all day.
The numbers underline just how much Tatum has improved in terms of creating these threes for himself. After converting on just 17 unassisted threes all of last season, Tatum is up to 43 already this year. Those 129 points on unassisted threes ranks 15th in the league and he only trails LeBron James in terms of forwards. That improvement is part of an impressive overall makeover Tatum has undergone with his game. He’s maintained his efficiency on three pointers despite taking over 2.5 more attempts a night compared to last season. In fact, his current combination for volume and efficiency ranks in the 66th percentile for all wings.
Throughout his career, Tatum has shown that ability all great scorers have to hit difficult shots, and now has his side-step at a level where he can take advantage of most mismatches. While Kemba figures to likely be the closer for the Celtics in the playoffs, Tatum is not afraid of the moment, and, as he showed against the Magic, has a new deadly signature shot that he’s comfortable taking in all scenarios.