Jayson Tatum came to the NBA as a promising rookie on a talented team. The 2017-18 Boston Celtics were returning Al Horford and Jaylen Brown from the prior season’s Eastern Conference Finals team. They had also added Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and several other veterans that offseason. Tatum’s role was to essentially be a “3&D” player in the starting lineup as his game developed in the pecking order behind three All-Stars in Irving, Hayward and Horford.
In the years since, as Boston’s personnel has changed and Tatum’s game has evolved, Tatum’s role and shot profile has changed. It hasn’t always been smooth, as Tatum went through a period where his preferred shot seemed to be a contested long-two. Yes, the “Kobe-fication” of his game was indeed a strong narrative in his second season. Thankfully, that seems to have been a one-year blip.
As Tatum’s role in Boston’s offense has grown, his shot selection has adapted. Here’s a look at how Tatum has changed his game to grow into one of the NBA’s most feared scorers.
As a rookie, Tatum was relegated to getting his points in two ways: catch-and-shoot attempts and off cuts. In his first year, Tatum took 835 total field goal attempts. Of those attempts, he took 195 (with 175 being three-pointers) of them as catch-and-shoot chances. Another 356 came in and around the paint. Of those shots, Tatum took 124 shots off cuts. That’s over half of his total attempts as catch-and-shoot opportunities or off cuts.
Tatum was a devastating catch-and-shoot player. He shot 47.7% on such shots, including 48% from three. On cuts, Tatum finished a respectable 50%. If he had never developed any further than that, Tatum would have become one of the best 3&D players in the NBA.
What did Tatum not do a whole lot of as a rookie? He didn’t do much off the dribble. He took 265 total pull-ups, with just 58 of them being three-pointers. He also didn’t drive all that much at just 5.7 times per game. And he turned it over 6.6% of the time when he did drive, while shooting only 44.9%.
Second-year Tatum came back a different player. He took over 200 more total field goal attempts, despite playing one less game. Tatum was now a featured offensive weapon on a team that didn’t lack for other offensive creators. Gordon Hayward returned from injury, as did Kyrie Irving. Jaylen Brown has earned a bigger role after a solid second season. And Al Horford was still anchoring the frontcourt.
As far as his own shot profile went, Tatum went a little sideways as a sophomore. He traded a good amount of his catch-and-shoot volume for off-the-dribble shots. Tatum remained a major threat when playing off Irving, Hayward and others, but he was also creating a lot of looks on his own.
The ability to create looks for himself was a great step forward. However, the kinds of looks Tatum was creating in his second season was a step backwards. As a rookie, Tatum took 18.8% of his shots as long-twos. That’s not uncommon, as perimeter players adjust to deeper NBA three-point line.
In his second year, Tatum took 16.9% of his shots as long-twos, but also added 13.7% of his shots as mid-range jumpers. That’s 30.6% of his attempts as the most inefficient shots in the game. Many of these came as off-the-dribble plays. The “Kobe-fication” of Tatum’s game that was born after Tatum very publicly spent part of the offseason working out with Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant.
The increase in mid-rangers came as Tatum’s attempts at the rim fell from 32% as a rookie to 26.1% as a sophomore. His drives per game and shots off drives also fell off. And, as many noted at the time, his turnovers on drives went way up to 8.8%.
In addition, Tatum only nudged his three-point attempts from 29% of his shots in his first year to 30% in his second year. While still a great scorer, it seemed as if Tatum would be destined to be an inefficient one and there were legitimate questions of his ability to lead an offense if Kyrie Irving left town.
Irving did leave town following the 2018-19 season, and Al Horford followed him out the door. Fresh off a Team USA nod for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, this was as much Tatum’s team now as it was anyone else’s. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward had gone through awkward seasons and there were questions about their abilities to carry an offense. Boston added Kemba Walker to replace Irving, as his off-ball game was seen as a nice fit to help Tatum and Brown grow as primary creators. In order to continue to their run of success under Brad Stevens, the Celtics would need Tatum to become an efficient scoring machine, with an emphasis on efficiency.
In 2019-20, Tatum took less catch-and-shoot shots than ever before. The ball was in his hands a lot and it was up to him to create offense for Boston. Tatum began taking pull-ups at an even higher rate than in 2018-19 and he hit them more than ever at both 40% overall and 40% from three. In 2019-20 alone, Tatum took 307 pull-up three-pointers and made 124 of them. That level of efficiency on a large volume put Tatum atop the NBA, tied with Damian Lillard at knocking down 40.4% of his pull-up threes.
It wasn’t just the ability to create jumpers off the dribble though. Tatum nearly doubled his drives to almost 11 drives per game. On those, he would get up 6.3 attempts per game. He made 46.6% of those shots and turned it over just 5.2% of the time. That’s an indication Tatum was stronger around the rim than ever before.
Beyond the pull-ups and drives, Tatum changed his shot profile. The long-twos that caused all the hand-wringing in 2018-19 were cut nearly in half from 16.9% to just 8.9%. Tatum’s mid-range attempts dropped slightly from 13.7% to 12.6%. He upped his paint attempts a bit from 39.4% in 2018-19 to 40.3%.
Where Tatum made the biggest change in profile was that he upped his three-point attempts from 30% as a sophomore to 38.3% in his third year. And Tatum shot 40.3% from behind the arc. Essentially, Tatum traded the inefficient looks for a bit more in the paint and a lot more attempts behind the arc. And he was creating most of those looks for himself.
As Tatum entered his fourth year, with a max contract extension in hand, the expectations were that he’d continue to grow as a scoring threat. Tatum delivered. He’s shown another round of balance this season, despite increased focus from defenses keying on him.
As he did in his third year, Tatum has all but scrapped the long-twos. They are at a career-low rate of 8.7% of his shots. Tatum’s drives are at a career-best 12.3 drives per game. And he’s making a career-high 48.1% of his shots off those drives.
Tatum remains an elite catch-and-shoot player, but those attempts make up a fairly small amount of his overall shot profile. He now takes the vast majority of his shots as pull-ups. Of players with at least 285 pull-up three-point attempts, Tatum’s 37.4 three-point percentage trails just Stephen Curry (42.8%) and Zach LaVine (38.2%) for off-the-bounce marksmanship.
Jayson Tatum came in, as many rookies do, as low-volume shooter. He was reliant on the shot creation of his teammates, as 56.5% of his two-pointers were assisted and a whopping 92.4% on his three-pointers came off a pass.
Those two rates are now down to 38% and 44.7%. Tatum is now the creator vs the benefiter of shot creation. That increase in creatorship usually comes with a drop in efficiency. Not for Tatum. He’s kept his efficiency up, despite the increase in his role in Boston’s offense.
This is why Tatum is a two-time All-Star and in line to make his second All-NBA team. And this is why the Boston Celtics were happy to give Tatum a max contract extension starting in 2021-22. And it’s also why Boston will be perfectly happy if Tatum qualifies for the Designated Rookie Extension and the $5.6 million bump in salary that will come with that.
By changing his shot profile and shot-creation type as his role has grown, Jayson Tatum has gone from deadly shooter to promising player to one of the NBA’s best all-around scorers.
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