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Jayson Tatum’s rapid progression as a passer

Jayson Tatum’s shift from a score-first superstar to a team-first playmaker will be crucial to the Celtics’ success.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout his first few years in the league, one of the biggest knocks on Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum was that he only looks to score. He’s been known to take a ton of shots, even when he’s not shooting particularly well. Even his own teammate, Marcus Smart, called out him and Jaylen Brown earlier this season, saying that they “don’t want to pass the ball.”

More recently, an unnamed Eastern Conference assistant coach spoke to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps about Tatum and his unwavering desire to be “the guy.” According to him, that’s all the superstar forward really cares about.

“I don’t think he cares about winning now, and if he does, it is on his terms. He doesn’t want to score 15 and win. He wants to score 39 and win.

Regardless of whether or not you want to believe that sentiment, Tatum has heard the criticism. Not only has he become a more willing passer, but his vision has improved, and the results are showing up in the stat sheet. The best, most obvious example came in Boston’s recent win against the Toronto Raptors. Despite shooting only 2-16 from the field, Tatum tallied 10 assists, leading the team in that category.

From the start of the season to November 1 (the infamous collapse vs. the Chicago Bulls), Tatum was averaging 24.6 shots per game, and the C’s went 2-5. Since then, he is averaging 20.4 shots a game, and the Celtics are 9-5.

Take a look at these two plays. Tatum is put in nearly the exact same position, with Romeo Langford standing in the corner. In the first one on Opening Night, he chooses to drive to the rim in a crowded paint, with Obi Toppin even shifting over from the corner to provide some pressure.

However, when given the same options just over a month later against Toronto, he decides to kick the ball out to Langford as soon as the defender (Isaac Bonga) shows signs of helping.

It’s this sort of development that will make Tatum a more effective player. His scoring is crucial to the success of the Celtics, but when he’s having an off-night, he needs to find other ways to contribute. If he can learn to make these decisions quicker and with more certainty, then the C’s will be in a much better place on offense.

This sort of decision also shows a growing trust in his teammates. Based on Smart’s comments earlier this season, Tatum and Brown were determined to make things happen on their own because they felt they had to. However, as we see Tatum make more passes like the one above, it displays an increased level of trust, which is vital if the C’s want to continuously improve.

Along with his decision-making, Tatum’s vision has taken a massive leap as well. This doesn’t just apply to finding teammates on the three-point line, though. Six of his 10 assists against Toronto led to threes, but he’s also found success dumping off to teammates when he drives.

These two plays, less than a month apart, show the progression of Tatum’s vision. In the first clip, the fifth-year forward drives to the paint against Alex Caruso, one of the best on-ball defenders in the league. He’s then met at the rim by the uber-athletic Derrick Jones Jr., and forces up a very contested floater. All the while, Grant Williams was wide open for a layup. Tatum was so focused on the rim that he never even considered passing to Williams.

Just a few weeks later, Tatum was presented with a similar opportunity against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He drives to the rim against Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander leaves Al Horford to help. Instead of throwing up a shot, Tatum finds Horford for an easy bucket.

The pass to Williams would certainly not have been an easy one. Jones Jr. was in Tatum’s grill and Williams was boxing out Zach LaVine. However, the pass to Horford wasn’t simple, either. Tatum had to pass around Robinson-Earl in order to find Horford. The big difference is that he had the wherewithal to see Horford open and make the right play.

These little improvements will quickly begin to add up for the young superstar. Just a month ago, head coach Ime Udoka said that Tatum “should get five-plus triple-doubles a year.” If he can continue to advance his playmaking skills as much as he has in the past month, then that goal will be well within reach.