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Why assist numbers aren’t indicative of Tatum’s passing prowess

As a primary creator, Tatum's effectiveness is often misunderstood.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

On their own, assists are a flawed statistic. There are countless examples of assists being handed out when, quite frankly, the passer has absolutely nothing to do with the finish of the play. Getting credited with an assist is also reliant on passing to somebody who will score it. In a league increasingly reliant on jump shots, great passers often don’t get as much credit as they should if their teammates simply miss open looks.

We’ll focus on neither flaw here. Instead, we’re looking at Jayson Tatum as the starter of ball movement, not just the guy who gift wraps open looks and layups to his fellow Celtics.

At the crux of Tatum’s pedestrian assist numbers is a simple concept: NBA defenses are freaking good! Rotations to cover for an open offensive player have become so commonplace that when an open shot is about the come open, the window in which the shot is available is very small. What beats these defenses isn’t the kick out to a shot, but the extra pass, the one that forces the defense to be constantly chasing the ball.

Offensively, the goal of any team is to generate quality looks for their team. The easiest way to do so tends to be generating paint touches, ways to get the ball to the interior where help defenders have to collapse or, at the very least, turn their focus away from their man. Great players like Tatum don’t just get into the lane a lot, they command extra attention when they get there.

So much so that defenses will design their game plans around proactively preventing the paint touch from occuring. Isolations are thwarted by aggressive help defenders. The Toronto Raptors, who have long been a strong defensive unit since Nick Nurse took over, have been great at defending isolations. They pack the blocks and elbows, crunching driving lanes and encouraging passes out of the iso. The Raptors bet is simple: force someone else to beat us, or at least collapse the defense.

When the Raptors and Celtics met last week, that same strategy applied to Tatum. He’d get the ball on the wing for an isolation, then immediately face a crowd. Instead of bullying his way through the bodies in red, he’d swing the ball around to the open man and let ball movement determine who needed to take the shot. The result for the Celtics: a paint touch from someone else.

It’s important to know that Tatum started that possession. It’s a simple read and speaks more to his willingness as a passer than his acumen, but one without the other is rather useless.

The importance of the three-point revolution has been less in terms of shot selection and more about off-ball spacing. Defenses have greater distances to travel when recovering from a help position now that off-ball threats are stationed in the dead corners and deep wings. By placing guys there on the weak side consistently, Ime Udoka is banking on generating open shots from one of those two locations frequently.

In order to punish those teams that help, the Celtics need two things: someone to put pressure on the rim and get into the lane (Tatum) and a culture of making the extra pass. The first guy is rarely the open one - it’s the second who gets free. See Marcus Smart here, who got a great look from the corner against the New York Knicks thanks to Tatum’s aggressive drive and the timely extra pass from Romeo Langford:

The Celtics missed both opportunities, but both were quality looks: an open corner 3-pointer and a shot inside ten feet. Tatum created both, but would get credit for neither even if the shots had fallen. However, Tatum is doing his job: draw two defenders, find the open teammate, and trust that the other four players will find the best available shot.

Isolations provide star players the opportunity to scan the floor and see all the cards on the table before making their play. It’s a slowed-down read that makes it obvious to Tatum what the right play is, and obvious to all spectators when the defense is going to collapse.

If you want to see high processing speed, look at the pick-and-roll. Identification of coverage from the defense, where the open man is and the ability to know whether to score or pass (and when) all happen in the span of a few seconds. Tatum has grown dramatically in these areas through the years, and is one of the better playmakers among all 6’9” wings.

Again, Tatum’s reputation gets punished because he’s somewhat unselfish. Rarely does he make the home run play. Against the Houston Rockets, Tatum faced constant traps in ball screens. The Rockets wanted to get the ball out of his hands and have someone else beat them. All that’s required of Tatum is to quickly hit an open man while two teammates rush towards him. That way, the Celtics can enjoy a 4-on-3 advantage and punish the Rockets for such an aggressive approach.

Houston’s frequent blitzes resulted in Al Horford touches on the short roll, where he’d kick the ball around immediately to an open jump shooter. Here, it’s Grant Williams. Again, Tatum starts the collapse and generates a paint touch by making the right basketball play, but doesn’t get rewarded in the stat sheet.

The trick in passing out of traps isn’t just seeing it coming and blindly trusting your screener to make the right play. While the Celtics have two excellent passing options in Horford and Robert Williams, defenses will work hard to take them away. He insures that the defense is committing to doubling him and is able to move the ball. Tatum needs to be able to pass out and over-the-top of the trap at times, an area where his long arms and tall frame come in handy.

See here late in the Knicks game when Tatum got trapped near the sideline. The screener was covered by a sagging defense away from the trap, so Jayson made a hook pass over the top to Jaylen Brown. Brown’s man got caught on a poor closeout, Jaylen got the paint touch and Grant Williams hit the massive corner triple:

Generating paint touches is the name of the game, and Tatum doesn’t do that simply by taking his man off the dribble and stepping into the lane. The attention he draws as a jump shooter on the perimeter means early ball movement can punish those aggressive defenses and let someone else get a foot in the paint.

Tatum is making the smart, right basketball play almost every time. Sure, the assist numbers aren’t incredibly high. But let’s not punish him for making the smart, unselfish decision. Those are the guys we want to go down swinging with every time.