Before the Boston Celtics’ 116-111 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night, Brad Stevens hinted at an expanded role for Jayson Tatum.
Without Kemba Walker on the second night of a back-to-back, Payton Pritchard still working his way back from a sprained MCL, and Marcus Smart out due to a strained calf, it was as if Stevens had no choice but to shovel significant playmaking duties onto the shoulders of Tatum.
To his credit, Tatum responded without a hiccup, racking up 10 assists — albeit with four turnovers — along with 27 points, nine rebounds, and two steals in just under 39 minutes of action. The Celtics lost a game they should have won, but Tatum’s assist total highlights a growing part of his game that will serve them well moving forward.
Boston doesn’t exactly have a traditional floor general on its roster, someone who can singularly run the offense, direct traffic, and get others involved. Walker hasn’t averaged more than six assists per game since his third season in the league and is more of a scoring guard anyway. Smart has grown in that realm to the point where he was averaging a career-high 6.1 assists per game before going down, but the combo guard remains outside the category that includes established playmakers like LeBron James or Chris Paul.
That construction explains why the Celtics have ranked among the league’s three-worst teams in potential assists per game both this season and last while simultaneously being one of the most frequented users of isolations. That was the style that best fit their personnel, and it’s worked out pretty well during that time, ranking top-10 in offensive efficiency each of the last three seasons.
Of course, teams of any status still need players unselfish enough to execute the proper reads of any given play, even if that means relinquishing the basketball. That’s where the unselfishness of Walker and Smart best fit. Their first thought might not always be to pass. That doesn’t make it any less of an option in the right moment.
The same qualities could be attributed to Gordon Hayward on last year’s team. Always an above-average passer among wings, he ranked third in assists per game behind Walker and Smart.
The Celtics would often trust Hayward to run their offense, which is why his two-game absence from the Eastern Conference Finals and subsequent struggles upon return explains a good chunk of their crunch time woes, where Boston shot just 7.7 percent on threes in the clutch (five-point game with five minutes or less remaining).
Though not an ironclad cause-and-effect, those perimeter struggles were a function of shot quality. Most of those triples were created along the arc. There was hardly any movement or penetration, the type Hayward’s size and vision could’ve improved upon to break Miami’s stifling zone defense.
By bolting to Charlotte over the offseason, the hole Hayward left through most of the playoffs was now permanent, unless someone could step in to fill it. Asking Kemba when he first had to return to the court and rediscover his All-Star self amid constant worries about his knee was a bit too much to ask. But Smart and Jaylen Brown have responded with more assists than ever before and Tatum has done the same.
Amid his breakout 2019-20 campaign, Tatum never once posted more than eight assists in any of the 66 games he appeared in. Through 15 games this season, he’s already broken double-figures on two occasions — against Detroit and Sacramento — while averaging a career-high 4.1 assists per game.
His passes have increased from last season to this one and he’s creating nearly three more potential assists per game as well (5.5—>8.2). It was a position thrust onto Tatum out of necessity but one he looks more comfortable in with each passing game.
This is the next step in Tatum’s continued ascension up the star ladder, using his greatness to elevate those around him. Its value might not be too clear so soon after a disappointing defeat for a team with an 11-9 record in possession of the No. 4 seed by mere percentage points.
But the Celtics will benefit in ways last year’s playoff elimination proved they are surely going to need moving forward.