In the modern technological age, we take the effortless things for granted. Rudimentary tasks such as watching a movie or listening to an album are at our fingertips and a click away.
Many of us remember trips to Blockbuster or scouring record stores trying to snag the latest release before they sold out, yet we rarely speak of these nostalgic experiences. We prefer to stay with the times for fear of being labeled a dinosaur.
Basketball is no different. Sure, we look back at the titans of old, fondly remembering their game, but in truth, we’ve already moved on - or at least pretend to. We’re not interested in who can dominate the mid-range or command the low block; no, we’re curious who can do both and then some because that’s what the modern game commands.
Jayson Tatum falls victim to these new expectations, where being an elite scorer isn’t enough. Instead, we discuss his “next steps” relentlessly, pinpointing his playmaking or foul drawing as the next logical evolution. But what if, just like so many shows on Netflix, there’s a hidden gem staring us in the face, waiting to be recognized?
Last year, Tatum’s development as an off-ball defender mostly went under the radar. This year it’s his improvements in the post. Instat tracking software has Tatum posting up on 11.9% of his offensive possessions - a 4.9% increase on last season.
Before exploring how Tatum is affecting games from the post, we need to investigate why he finds himself on the block in the first place.
Since mid-way through last season, there’s been an emphasis on Tatum operating as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. The thought process behind Tatum orchestrating the offense is that it will spur his development as a playmaker while also forcing the defense into difficult decisions.
To his credit, Tatum has done an exceptional job of blending his attacks when coming off a screen, with 48% of his looks coming via a drive. NBA defenses will only give you room for so long though.
Eventually, opposing teams are going to start scheming against you. For Tatum, those schemes mean teams are running him off the three-point line, then shrinking the floor when he drives the ball. If he’s not running a pick-and-roll, then teams are looking to deny him the ball. The increased attention Tatum commands has lead to him using the post for a multitude of reasons.
The Golden State Warriors do a great job of “icing” the pick-and-roll before it even occurs, getting between Tristan Thompson and Tatum early and forcing Tatum baseline. Steph Curry has a great position to help on any Tatum drive, essentially forcing the All-Star wing to give up the rock, despite the mismatch with Brad Wanamaker.
So what does Tatum do? He hits the nearest player to him, Javonte Green, in the strong side corner and relocates into a post position. Now, the St. Louis native finds himself in a much better situation, with a size mismatch and room to operate. The shot might not fall in this instance, but Tatum showed great offensive IQ to use the give-and-go to get into the post.
When you’re an elite shooter off the catch, teams will hone in on you off ball. Miye Oni is “top-locking” Tatum to ensure he doesn’t relocate to the wing for a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Semi Ojeleye cuts beyond the perimeter to drag his defender out and give Tatum some additional room. Tatum ducks into a post-up position to receive the pass, then he spins and attacks the lane. If teams are going to prevent him from facing up, it’s important that Tatum finds other ways to be effective.
Tatum looks to drive from the wing here, but Justin Holiday does a fantastic job cutting off the drive. Instead of losing his dribble or deferring the rock, Tatum posts his defender around the free throw line extended before going into his bag of footwork maneuvers.
Although these play types slow down the offense and aren’t currently in vogue around the league, Tatum is providing the Celtics with an additional outlet when the defense cuts off the lane. It also allows Tatum’s teammates to relocate off the ball, which increases the spacing the Celtics so desperately require to operate at their full potential.
When Tatum has his back to the basket, one of his go-to moves is his fadeaway. This season, Tatum has taken 30 jump shots when posting up his man, 23 of those jumpers have been fadeaways, and 11 have been successful; that’s a 47.8% conversion rate. Not all of those fadeaways have been turn-around jumpers - some have come from facing up, others from step-backs. No matter how they’re occurring, Tatum is finding success with this Kobe-esque shot.
As we look beyond the spectacular, we’re left with Tatum’s attempts on “runners” - which I define as any form of shot within 8 feet of the hoop taken in movement; this could be lay-ups, floaters, hooks, and so forth. Tatum has taken 23 of these “runners” to start the year, converting 10 of them.
As the Duke alum continues to develop his game, his post-play will begin to pay dividends in terms of playmaking, too. With the defense forced to pay him extra attention, there will be open shooters on the perimeter. While improved, Tatum’s passing just isn’t at the required level to be a consistent threat - yet.