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Shooters gonna shoot: Jayson Tatum and breaking through his slump

There’s only one solution.

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

“Every time I shoot, I think it’s going in. I get upset when it doesn’t.”

Jayson Tatum provided this memorable line after an early December matchup with Milwaukee in his rookie season. After catching fire beyond the arc in that game, he was up to a staggering 51.3% from deep on the year. Those sorts of early performances (is he still only 19?) were the foundation upon which he’s built his legitimate and well-deserved stardom.

He’s likely upset a bit more often these days.

After a ‘20-’21 season marred by the ever-present shadow of COVID-19, the Boston Celtics went into the offseason with an eye to the future. Brad Stevens stepped into a new front office role as President of Basketball Operations and hired new head coach Ime Udoka.

Hope was high. Fans and pundits alike expected a top-6 seed in the East, if not better. Sitting at 9th in the conference with a .500 record has many of us looking for answers or solutions, often in the form of hypothetical trades and a roster shakeup.

There may be a simpler answer.

So far this season, Tatum has shot a (by far) career low of 31.7% from beyond the arc. He’s certainly not the only player on the roster going through a slump, but he is the only one on the roster who has put up almost 350 shots from deep this year (Jaylen Brown is next with 247). Of players who qualify for the 3FG% leaderboard, no player is shooting as badly on as many attempts across the league.

This sport is so astounding complex with multiple variables that examining a single stat in isolation shouldn’t be more than an academic exercise. Just for the chuckles, though, let’s take a look: what would happen if JT just shot better?

Including this down season, Tatum’s career average from deep is 38.1% - a mark that qualifies him as a good shooter, to be sure. If he’d shot at that rate this season on the same number of attempts, he would have made 22 more three-pointers. All other things being equal, this would raise the Celtics as a team from the 23rd most accurate team from deep to the 14th in the NBA. Perhaps more strikingly, it would also raise our point differential for the season to +3.1, good for fourth in the East. That sounds a lot more in line with collective preseason expectations for what was a promising Boston roster.

Jayson has slumped before, and he’s hit hot streaks that defied reasonable expectations. As CelticsBlog’s Bill Sy recently observed after Wednesday’s loss to the Hornets, he appeared headed for another such heater this year before coming down with COVID in late December, bu he’s resumed his slump since his return.

With the trade deadline approaching, there’s always the temptation to search for massive change, for a roster-shaking move that will right the ship and carry us to the bright shores of the promised land. Maybe a search for patience would prove just as fruitful; once JT rediscovers his form, all signs point to us being the team we envisioned at the start of the year.

Shooters are gonna shoot.

And Jayson Tatum is a shooter.