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Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown look to become better playmakers next season

After averaging a combined 51 points per game last year, the duo will now look to become better playmakers.

Boston Celtics Summer League Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s a superstar league. Maybe more than any other sport, basketball — and specifically NBA basketball — that maxim is true. Having a top-10 player is practically a prerequisite to make a deep playoff run these days. But if there’s a second half to that saying, it’s that superstars also need great role players around them.

For the Celtics, the heavy lifting is already done. In Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Boston has two young All-Stars signed to long-term extensions. Brad Stevens has reconfigured the roster and the salary cap to build around them for the foreseeable future and now it’ll be new head coach Ime Udoka’s job to maximize his dynamic duo’s talents with their teammates.

In an interview with ESPN’s Jalen & Jacoby, Udoka said, “we’ve got multiple handlers, multiple playmakers, and that’s an area we need to see growth with Jaylen and Jayson. It’s not just scoring the basketball; it’s those guys initiating the offense and being better playmakers. That’s the next step in their evolution.” Udoka voiced a similar sentiment while working with Tatum and Team USA in Vegas.

The most direct, A-to-B route between superstar and role player are catch-and-shoot buckets. They’re some of the easiest looks a player can get; find an open spot on the floor, wait for a pass as your defender shades off you, and take a relatively open shot without even a single dribble. Simply put: catch ball, shoot ball. That’s an oversimplification, but it still points to the symbiotic relationship between superstar and role player.

Roughly 30% of the league’s points are scored on catch-and-shoot opportunities. And while many of them are from distance, they’re one of the most efficient play types per the league’s Second Spectrum analytics.

For the season, the Celtics weren’t that bad on catch-and-shoots last year. In fact, they actually shot the ball pretty well. Boston ranked 7th in eFG% at 57.9, 8th in 3FG% at 39.1%. Unfortunately, they just didn’t generate that many attempts. They were a measly 29th in 3FGA with only 21.3 per game, resulting in 26th in points at 27.2 per game. To put that into perspective, the Los Angeles Clippers were first in the league in catch-and-shoot points at 35 points per night on the back of the highest shooting percentage from behind the arc (42.8% 3FG%) and the most makes (10.7).

Catch-and-shoot

Celtics 2020-21 3FGA 3FG% EFG%
Celtics 2020-21 3FGA 3FG% EFG%
Jaylen Brown 4.6 43.1 63.3
Marcus Smart 4.2 32.5 49
Evan Fournier 3.3 51.9 75.5
Kemba Walker 2.6 39.3 59.1
Payton Pritchard 2.5 46.7 69.7
Semi Ojeleye 2.5 37.6 55.4
Daniel Theis 2 36 55.2
Aaron Nesmith 2 39.8 59.7
Jayson Tatum 1.9 44.6 64.4
Grant Williams 1.9 37.5 56
New Celtics 2020-21
Jason Richardson 3.7 32.3 49.3
Dennis Schroder 2.6 36.3 54.4
Al Horford 4.7 36.6 51.3

The most striking takeaway from last year’s numbers is how much the Celtics will miss Evan Fournier’s shooting off the ball. He played in just sixteen games, but you could see just how much of an effect he had on the offensive side of the ball. More reliable shooting behind the arc means wider driving lanes for Brown and Tatum to operate in which means more help defense which means more kick outs to shooters and so on and so forth.

To replace Fournier and Kemba Walker, Brad Stevens didn’t exactly choose to surround Brown and Tatum with shooters. Instead, he added more ball handlers and wings in Dennis Schroder and Josh Richardson to generate more penetration to find Brown and Tatum for open threes and replaced Tristan Thompson with stretch big ol’ reliable Al Horford.

The Celtics will also rely more heavily on young role players like Payton Pritchard, Aaron Nesmith, and Grant Williams to soak up more minutes and more importantly, more outside shots on the perimeter.

The closest approximation of what the Celtics might look like next season is the aforementioned Los Angeles Clippers. With two All-Star wings in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, they don’t necessarily have that pick-and-roll point guard at the top or dominant big man in the middle. Like Boston, their strength is with their star wings.

As previously noted, the Clippers were the best catch-and-shoot team in the NBA. With George and Leonard as their engine, players like Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, and Luke Kennard feasted on open looks. There’s no reason that the Celtics can’t duplicate Los Angeles’ success next season.

Last season, both Tatum and Brown proved that they can be reliable and efficient scorers. However, they only averaged 7.7 combined assists per game; Kawhi and PG13 dished out 10.4. That may seem like an inconsequential difference in the grand scheme of things. What’s three more assists mean in their box score? It’s less about the counting statistics and more about style of play.

As Udoka suggested, while there is a developmental goal to improved Brown and Tatum as all around threats, an influx of other playmakers on the team like Horford, Schroder, and Richardson and the continued development of Romeo Langford won’t put too much pressure on them and should create a more unpredictable and potent offense. As CelticsBlog’s Greg Brueck-Cassoli writes:

Richardson and Schröder aren’t former All-Stars or 20-point per game scorers, but Boston has two of those in Brown and Tatum already, and the difference in either of them initiating offense or catching the ball against a defense in rotation as compared to Ojeleye or Grant Williams is massive.

Semi Ojeleye slander aside, it’s an important distinction that should totally revamp the Celtics’ offense next season. Although Boston finished top-10 on that side of the ball last season, the ball seemed to stick and so often, Brown and Tatum were forced to take difficult shots. With a more versatile and mature group heading into 2021-2022, it should just happen less.