Jayson Tatum‘s 29 points helped the Boston Celtics put an end to the reign of the defending champions in Game 7 of the conference semis. The win sent Tatum to his second Eastern Conference Finals in just his third pro season, but the experience of the first couldn’t differ more from the manner in which he enters the second.
As incredibly improbable as Tatum was during his inaugural playoff run as a rookie, he was still just that: a first-year 19-year-old trying to find his place in Boston. He was their leading scorer in the playoffs but not exactly the player left to carry the load.
The same could currently apply on the only team with three 20-point scorers, but the title hopes for these Celtics still hinge on Tatum’s play more than they do anyone else on the roster. He’s answered the call so far in these playoffs, ranking tops among the team in points (25.3) and rebounds (10.1) while placing second in assists (4.3) and shooting 41.3 percent on triples.
This postseason has further showcased Tatum’s rapid growth in his relatively brief NBA tenure. At just 22 years of age, his statistical trajectory compares favorably to some of the game’s greatest. Just four wins from The Finals, he has a chance to match a select handful in a more significant way as well.
Here is the list of modern era players 23-and-under who have led their team in scoring en route to the NBA Finals:
- LeBron James (2007)
- Dwight Howard (2009)
- Kevin Durant (2012)
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970)
- Tim Duncan (1999)
- Hakeem Olajuwon (1986)
- Shaquille O’Neal (1995)
(Note: Not on this list are Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, who sat behind their star big-men in the scoring column but nonetheless contributed plenty across multiple Finals runs at a similar young age.)
The miniature size of that list is no coincidence. Qualifying requires the rare combination of absurd talent working at an equally ridiculously accelerated pace compared to the average player and the surrounding pieces necessary to warrant legitimate title contention.
Even in the rare instance of the former, the latter often takes years to materialize. Just ask Devin Booker or Karl-Anthony Towns to break down their playoff experience in a combined 10 years of play.
Howard aside, it’s why that list is comprised of some of the best the NBA’s vast historical talent pool can offer, not just current or future Hall-of-Famers but many who inarguably rank among the 10 greatest players ever.
Tatum became the youngest Celtic with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in a playoff game. He sits behind only Kobe Bryant as the youngest to ever register at least 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a Game 7.
The Miami Heat are no ordinary fifth seed, emerging from an impressive five-game series victory over the team with the best regular season record in the NBA. But Boston took two of three regular season meetings and boast the offensive firepower to swing the odds in their favor.
We can’t always tell when a spot in the upper echelon of greatness is being carved out in front of our eyes. It takes time to assess whether any showing was a singular moment, similar to Dwight, or the launching point for something far more everlasting.
There are never any guarantees, but if the legacies of names like LeBron, Abdul-Jabbar, and Duncan are any indication, we will look back at Tatum’s Finals run as the first significant chapter in one of the NBA’s best stories.