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Finishing and free throws are the missing links for Jayson Tatum

Tatum’s self-imposed goal for the year is to be more aggressive off the bounce, and it’s the right goal to set.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Rule #1 of training camp: Always take Media Day with a grain of salt.

Hidden within the canned answers are occasional gems, including one mentioned by Jayson Tatum. Tatum spoke about his areas of improvement and focus this offseason: “getting downhill and shooting more free throws.” Adding mass so his body holds up when finishing, another summer checklist item for Deuce’s daddy, will have residual effects on his interior game.

Four years into his career, Tatum is a drastically different player at the rim than he is from extended layup range, defined as being between 3 and 10 feet. Getting downhill, embracing contact and finishing more at the hoop are noble and likely accurate goals of his. According to Basketball Reference, Tatum took slightly more shots last year from between 3 and 10 feet (20.6% of his attempts) than at the rim (19.7%).

Why is that troubling for Tatum? He’s so much better at the rim than in that extended range. Inside of 3 feet, Tatum shot 73.5%. Outside that area, he converted on only 41.7% of his attempts. He’s almost twice as likely to score if he gets a few feet closer to the rim. For a career 84% free throw shooter, there shouldn’t be a fear of conversion if he gets to the free throw line, either. If Tatum took 25% of his shots at the rim and only 14% on that extended range, it would result in a difference of almost two points per game.

Last year, only 22 players took eight or more attempts per game inside the 3-point line, and Tatum was one of them. The rest of the list is fairly elite company, as only top-tier players command that volume. By making 58.3% of them, he’s squarely in the middle of that group at 13th in terms of efficiency. The biggest difference: Tatum is one of four such players (Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Pascal Siakam) who take more from the 3-10 foot range than at the rim and one of three who take fewer than 20% of their attempts at the rim (Westbrook and Beal).

Translation: his desire to avoid contact and settle for that extended layup isn’t common among the greats.

Brooklyn Nets v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

In the midst of an analytics craze, we talk so much about the value of the 3-point shot. In reality, the analytics revolution has changed the game more in terms of off-ball spacing than in terms of overall shot selection. The main impact of taking more treys and having guys without the ball stand in the corners is that fewer defenders are standing in the paint. The result: easier opportunities to score at the rim, making that the most analytically-pleasing attempt on the floor.

The Celtics have assembled a team with solid 3-point shooting around Tatum, and relatively few non-shooters that play alongside him. The excuses aren’t exactly there to say that Tatum can’t get to the rim because of how others have played him. As he evolves into one of the elite jump shooters on the planet, on-ball defenders will crowd him. Logically, the next counter is to put his head down and use the threat of the jumper to get towards the most analytically positive territory on the floor.

Most importantly in Tatum’s self-stated goals is the idea of getting to the free throw line. An element of that which is in his control: seeking out and embracing contact and physicality. There have been times, even in the last year, when many of his finishes are more defined by his willingness to avoid contact than to invite it:

Notice the way Tatum contorts himself and raises the degree of difficulty on his attempt, all because he’s working to minimize the amount of contact he’ll face. That is evident nowhere more than when Tatum attacks from right-to-left, relying on his length and inside hand reverses/touch shots with his right. Again, the degree of difficulty rises:

If Jayson doesn’t have a great angle to the rim, he’ll often float up ‘maybe’ shots (as in ‘maybe they’ll go in’) as runners in the mid-range. Those not only aren’t great looks, but fail to get within the 3-feet range that would qualify for a strong attack and finish.

The same thing goes for when he might have his defender on his left shoulder — the ideal place for him to initiate contact without exposing the basketball. In the two examples below, Tatum doesn’t body guys when he can or should with his off-arm, instead opts for a turnaround over Kristaps Porzingis and a very soft leaner/touch shot against PJ Tucker:

If Tatum is looking to get to the free throw line more, soft fadeaways or slight bumps while moving away from the basket won’t get the job done. The emphasis on downhill attacking means that he gets himself aligned and moving towards the rim, not drifting away from it. He should have taken one hard gather dribble to get his momentum square into Porzingis’ chest, then use the contact to create space.

In general, trying to drive around defenders makes it harder to feel contact since you aren’t driving through them. To be frank, Tatum is not a freak athlete. He’s a skilled, big wing with solid athleticism and great length. He’s relied on the craftiness of his footwork, long finishes to worm around guys and angles to get his layups off.

The tough part about playing long is that he tends to take long strides, which is the antithesis to playing strong through contact. The wider your feet are, the harder it becomes to handle physicality to your core. Long strides and trying to Euro step or side-step through traffic not only limits the physicality available to Tatum, but grounds his leaping ability. When there is contact, he fades backwards instead of into it:

A remedy for that: one strong pound dribble, a one-two step gather and elevating with the shoulder at the lead. Finishing starts with footwork.

Pay attention to how much closer together Tatum’s last two steps are (the gather steps before the launch into his layup) than in any of the clips above. He’s more controlled, more square, and much stronger. That balance allows him to handle contact and climb the ladder when rim protectors establish verticality:

With strong takes come rewarding whistles. Because Tatum makes an effort to play strong and balanced, any contact to his core or lower half will push his body in a different direction than his takeoff point would indicate. That’s an easy call for refs to make, as opposed to trying to knife around the contact and force the ref to figure out what movement is caused by the defense.

Playing square and off two feet has plenty of advantages. For a guy who loves inside hand finishes like Tatum, being balanced before the attempt helps him ascend towards the rim instead of away from it. When a big man is back to protect the rim, Tatum can stick his shoulder into that guy’s chest, not fall forward or completely off balance, and have enough time to find balance again before taking his layup.

Gone are the days of Daniel Theis screen-and-sealing all bigs out of the way for Tatum to snake around. Now, Tatum has to handle the physicality himself, and doing this consistently would be a great start:

Look at how low Tatum gets his left shoulder without keeling over. The low man always wins, and to do that without shrinking his finish to a low scoop shot is proof that accelerating into contact actually generates power. Plus, he got to the free throw line each time.

Realistically, Tatum can’t lower his shoulder like that every time down the floor. Leaning on his forearm and elbow (subtly, of course) to create the same amount of space is imperative. Tatum’s long strides already allow for impressive deceleration, so if he initiates contact on the first of his two gather steps, he’ll have enough time to slow down and create space for a quality attempt with the second step.

James Harden is the master of this, but Tatum is strong enough physically to pull it off. Hard dribbles with confidence, strong doses of contact without losing his footing and then his exquisite touch gets to shine through:

What’s striking is that, despite all these small bugaboos and points where Tatum makes his own life more difficult, he’s still a really good finisher. Think of adding a few strength advantages as the step that takes Tatum from a good to a great interior scorer. This isn’t about Tatum avoiding ever using his length or going off one foot again. It’s about adding a new dynamic to his finishing package so that he’s more equipped to generate free throw attempts and score at the rim instead of turnarounds or runners.

Perhaps doing so will turn Tatum into the NBA’s next 30 point per game scorer.