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What’s going on with Jayson Tatum?

Why has the Celtics star looked a little bit off this year?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Thus far, Jayson Tatum’s shooting stats are down across the board. Also down are his shoulders as he’s looked frustrated on the court.

The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach discusses his body language in his latest article “What’s wrong with Jayson Tatum?”:

When Tatum is at his best, he plays with an obvious and uncommon swagger. But for much of this season, whether complaining to officials or displaying frustrations with his own play, his body language has been off. Head coach Ime Udoka said he noticed it Saturday night, when Tatum made just 1 of 8 3-pointers and committed six turnovers in the 91-89 loss to the Cavaliers.

“A little frustration on missed shots, letting it affect him on the other end,” Udoka said. “Just got to play through that. Having some tough shooting nights, and we talked about him impacting the game in other ways. But he got frustrated, played to the crowd a little bit, had some turnovers there late, some sloppy ones.”

Everyone assumes (probably correctly) that Jayson is going to figure things out and that his shooting woes will average out soon enough. But these slow starts are becoming enough of a trend that it only makes sense to wonder what the cause is (and perhaps figure out a way to prevent them in the future).

Nobody really knows what’s going on, perhaps even Tatum himself. But I thought I’d throw out some potential causes and see if any make sense.

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Maybe he’s tired

After the bubble and a shortened offseason, the league went into a 2021 condensed season, followed by a longer, but still less than standard offseason. During that less than standard offseason, Tatum played for Team USA and was a featured scorer on it. Note that Olympic teammate Damian Lillard is having similar shooting struggles this season. Then again, Kevin Durant seems to be shooting just fine.

Maybe he’s thinking too hard

With Kemba Walker gone, it is clear to everyone that the Boston Celtics are in the hands of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. That’s a big responsibility that is hard to prepare for until you’ve been thrown into the fire.

On top of that, he’s playing with a new coach for the first time in his NBA career. That coach is installing a new defensive scheme, holding his players more publicly accountable, and asking Tatum and Brown to take on more playmaking responsibilities.

Now keep in mind that several have pointed out how quickly Jayson picks up concepts and adds them to his game. He’s a hard worker who wants to play the right way. You can see him making strides in fits and bursts. He’s improving in areas outside of his comfort zone.

Add all that up and there’s a very real possibility that he’s simply thinking too much on the court. Basketball is such a feel and flow sport. If you’re thinking, you’ve already missed the split second opportunity that you had. If you’re thinking, the shot goes long one time and too short the next time.

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Maybe the rule changes have frustrated him

Tatum has never been one to live at the line (only 5.3 attempts last season, a career high). He never developed the bag of tricks that players like James Harden and Trae Young used to their advantage in years past. On the other hand, Jayson made it an emphasis to get to the line more this season. Everyone from his trainer to his new coach to bloggers like me have been urging him to get to the line for free points this year. He even bulked up in anticipation of the extra hits he’ll take. However, the referees are calling fewer fouls this year. Call it an over-correction if you like, but other stars are frustrated as well.

So far Tatum seems to be making more of an effort to get into the lane. When he gets there he’s thinking through what the right play is (see the previous section). Does he pass the ball out to open shooters? Does he try to finesse the ball into the hoop? Or should he accept the contact and go through the defender’s arm? Then once he’s made that commitment, gets hit on the arm, and then frequently doesn’t get the call... well, I can see how that would be frustrating. That’s also the kind of thing that can (if you let it) spill over into the rest of your game, especially something as finicky as shooting.

Will it get better?

Add it all up and you’ve got plenty of reasons why Tatum might be having another slow start this season. We know he’s going to keep working at it. We know he has the natural talent necessary to turn things around. Shoot, we’ve seen him go on a heater for a full month so nobody would be surprised if he was back in full form with his averages back to normal by Christmas.

Let’s just hope that heater starts up soon because he’s been way too cold for the first few weeks of the season (for him). We’ve been saying for months that “this team goes as far as Tatum and Brown can take them.” Well, so far, the team is 6-7.