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He won’t win the award, but Jayson Tatum belongs on the Most Improved Player ballot

The Celtics star took a different leap than those typically honored as “Most Improved,” but it was distinguishable nonetheless.

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Nikola Jokic. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Luka Doncic. Stephen Curry. Joel Embiid, definitely. Kevin Durant, too. It’s a short list, that of the players you have to develop individual game plans for on top of the scheme you develop for their team as a whole. Some players sporadically threaten to appear on this watchlist but fail to remain due to injuries or team-related circumstances — Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Karl-Anthony Towns come to mind; LeBron James owned the list for the better part of 17 years — but for the most part, it’s exclusive.

Every so often, though, a player has a season that vaults them directly into this category, the kind of campaign that is so undeniably special that begs inclusion behind its weight alone. That’s what happened with Nikola Jokic last season (and this one, by extension). And it’s what’s happening with Jayson Tatum this year. By developing a rare brand of well-rounded basketball, a skillset that amplifies everything from his scoring output to his defensive pliability, Tatum is suddenly one of those players that can ruin an opponent’s night with a crossover and an ensuing steal. He’s that much of a threat — a name that, when placed alongside the league’s most elite, looks like it belongs.

Despite negligible changes in his overall statistical output from last season to this one — he’s up just 0.5 in points, 0.6 in blocks, and 0.1 in assists per game, and he’s seen his shooting splits dip ever so slightly despite an increase of 0.1 shot attempts per game — the leap Tatum has taken between his last two seasons is of a different variety. No longer can anyone merely view Tatum as the number one option on his team, even if that’s a fine level of distinction unto itself. He’s a bona fide superstar, one who has refined his game to make every possible opponent squirm when forced to find a solution for his play. More often than not, they can’t.

In its original trailer, the 2015 animated hit Inside Out asked a simple question: “do you ever look at someone and wonder what is going on inside their head?” That was the film’s principal quandary, as it depicts the emotions each person feels as people, more or less, operating a sort of factory inside a human being’s brain. The question evolved into a popular meme later on, but I often find myself asking it about various NBA players.

Tatum, for a long time, was at the top of that list: “What is going on inside his head when he had the ball?” was my question. I wondered whether or not he was fully confident in his abilities as a playmaker and scorer. He sometimes launched shots as though they were his last, and didn’t always exude a resounding conviction in himself as a shooter. He’d hesitate, or pass out of open shots, despite the fact that he was a former third-overall pick and was being paid handsomely to find his own shot, first and foremost.

This season, unlike any of his four previous ones, Tatum has answered that question resoundingly. He has found a home in the grey area between selfishness and aplomb, no longer forcing bad shots but instead being so good that no such thing exists. He could launch whenever he wants, but he’s selective now. He knows that whatever shot he wants to take is, more than likely, going in. The confidence is a vital intangible; the numbers — tangible — back up the observation.

Tatum’s shot profile is at once less diverse and more reliable than ever, percentages be damned. He’s rejecting the urge to take the contested midrange jumpers he used to covet in favor of the more valuable and attainable one, just a dribble to the side; better yet, his finishing ability now teeters on elite, making his 11.5 drives per game that much more daunting for opponents. He’s not shooting from as many spots on the floor as he was last season, but from where he is shooting, he’s more efficient.

Translation: Tatum is a threat from literally every single spot on the floor, but he somehow finds a way to get to his preferred spots more than ever. And he’s exercised those preferences to the tune of 30-plus points 28 times this season — up from 20 last season.

“Tatum, playing with his food,” Mark Jones quipped in that video’s first clip. But there’s truth to it. Tatum is just toying with the game now, exploring more in an effort to find what works for him while somehow making sure to minimize his mistakes.

A lot of his efficiency — and the overall danger that comes with trying to stop Tatum — has come into focus over the course of the last few months, as Boston has evolved from disaster to contender. Since late January, he’s averaged close to 30 per game, along with seven rebounds and five assists. Those numbers have received a great (and fair) deal of shine due to the fact that his team has fared well, too. But they’ve succeeded thanks in large part to the changes Tatum has made in his game; the Celtics are 16.1 points better when Tatum is on the floor than when he sits, a career-high for Tatum and a number that slots him in the NBA’s 99th percentile.

He has become a damn good passer over the course of this season, too. That’s not to say he was a “bad” passer previously. Just not one you could point to and say, “Hey! That guy can pass.” (Which, funny enough, NBA writers aplenty have been doing quite a bit recently — two of the best, in fact, as both ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Sports Illustrated’s Michael Pina have dedicated a few thousand words to dissecting his dishing abilities just last week. I especially loved what Lowe had to say about deTatum’s growth: “Tatum has reached that nirvana where every one of his skills is peaking at once, amplifying each other in ways he might never have imagined.” Tatum’s broadening horizons have benefitted his individual game, from an overall growth perspective, and he’s become more willing and able to manipulate the game in his team’s favor.

That he’s such a threat to score at any given moment causes defenders to rush toward him, thus leaving his teammates in prime scoring position. Tatum’s crowning achievement this season might just be his willingness to get them the ball quickly, as opposed to surveying whether or not a shot is available despite the defense closing in, as he may have in the past. Per Cleaning the Glass, he’s assisting on 20.6 percent of his teammates’ made shots, a career-high that places them in the league’s 90th percentile among forwards.

Some of that is simple basketball: making the extra pass, dumping it off to an open teammate, etc. But the key is that Tatum, given how much attention he is attracting from defenses, is actively looking for open teammates, not just getting rid of the ball for the sake of alleviating pressure. The best passes are the ones he rifles through cracks in coverage, like a quarterback picking out a streaking slot receiver. Is it a Patrick Mahomes? Is it a Josh Allen? No, just Jayson Tatum, maximizing his potential in yet another area. Ho-hum, nothing to see here except everything.

That’s been the case all season: Tatum being must-see basketball, once a superstar in the making now showing the tendencies of an increasingly rare kind of superstar. The leaps a prototypical “Most Improved Player of the Year” winner makes tend to be significant jumps from shaky to reliable — Darius Garland and Dejounte Murray, two of this year’s MIP contenders, fit that bill. But perhaps it’s time for the award to recognize the even rarer leaps, that from stud to star, that fewer players are able to make. Ja Morant, this year’s MIP frontrunner, is in the process of making that jump. No player has done it quite like Tatum.

So, no, he’s not going to win the award, nor will he end up on most ballots. But the epic, borderline historic nature of what Tatum has accomplished this season warrants recognition in this space. He’ll get it elsewhere, by ending up on MVP ballots and one of the first two All-NBA teams (the first, if anyone has any sense). There’s just room for more trophies in his case — perhaps a leap from superstar to whatever other high he has to reach next season can win him this one next year.

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