Jayson Tatum enters the Boston Celtics series against the Brooklyn Nets as the clear-cut second-best player in the series, but the tides may be starting to turn in his favor. After a season of incredible development, Tatum is now a far more complete player than the one who went to battle against Durant in last year's playoffs.
Improvements in rebounding, passing, shot distribution, and rim finishing have all played a part in Tatum’s rise. We all knew that he the St Louis native was capable of becoming a top-five player in the NBA, but having the potential, and actually taking those last few steps are totally different.
Still, after his usual post-All-Star break explosion, Tatum is giving off legitimate future MVP vibes, and that’s the first time we can genuinely say that since he entered the league as an isolation-scoring rookie. But, to paraphrase the movie Never Back Down, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
Make no mistake about it, right now, Kevin Durant is the best, which means there’s no better time for Tatum to stake his claim for the future throne than now. Interestingly, Durant has previously given his thoughts on this matter, and by all accounts, he agrees.
“I’ve been in the league for 13, 14 years and I started to tally-mark the matchups, the series, the players that I’ve played against. I’ve had series against Kobe, LeBron, Tim Duncan, and the Memphis Grizzlies — Jayson Tatum is in that conversation. He’s that elite level player already at 23 and I’m like, ‘All right, I can see where this is going. It was an honor to play against him,” Durant said in a previous episode of The Etc’s podcast, “I hate that we’re in the same conference. Because I know as he starts to get older, we’re going to be battling them year in and year out.”
According to Stathead, Tatum and Durant have faced off against each other seven times during the regular season, with the Nets superstar holding a one-win advantage over the Celtics budding star. In those seven games, Durant tallied averages of 26 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.1 assists, while Tatum went for 20.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.7 assists. Those numbers jump for both parties during the playoffs, where the pair faced off for five games last season, with Durant winning that series as part of a gentleman’s sweep.
Playmaking has always been the swing factor in Tatum’s development into a superstar, and when you look at previous meetings between these two players, the assist ratio has always been where the biggest gap resides. However, Tatum’s ability to read the floor, perceive a pass, and react accordingly (processing speed) has vastly improved throughout the year. Is Tatum now a better playmaker than Durant? Maybe. But in truth, he’s probably still another year away from saying that definitively.
Of course, Tatum has always been one to gauge his progress against the league’s greats, as he bids to become the best player in the world. And considering the aesthetic crossover between his game and Durant’s, it would seem Tatum holds the superstar’s opinion in high regard.
“We all knew it was his team (Team USA) but for somebody like that in the middle of the game, he comes down the court, he’s telling me to post up and giving me the ball to go score. It was like ‘I’m working towards getting to that level,’ I’m earning the respect of somebody like that. Ultimately, that was one of my favorite parts of being on the team, just that moment,” Tatum told Draymond Green in a recent podcast episode.
The upcoming series between Boston and Brooklyn is going to be a good barometer for Tatum, so that he can judge how much further he has to go before reaching the level of somebody as transcendent as Kevin Durant. But, as Keith Smith noted in his recent playoff primer, “Jayson Tatum’s emergence as an all-around superstar puts him near the level of Kevin Durant. Durant remains the NBA’s most-lethal scorer. There’s nothing he can’t do. And if you send help, Durant is perfectly capable of finding cutters and shooters. But here’s the thing…Tatum is just a tick behind Durant in those same ways. And that tick is getting smaller and smaller by the day.”
Just as Draymond Green foresees Durant passing the torch to Tatum on Team USA, this upcoming playoff series could be the start of a slow transfer of power. Tatum is ascending towards the throne now. We’re not sure what throne that may be - it could be the best wing in the league, best scorer, best two-way guy, or even, and I say this in hushed tones, the best player in the world.
No matter where the ascension is taking Tatum, it’s Durant who he needs to usurp, and that begins by getting revenge for last season's early exit from the playoffs. We’re going to get the first insight into how far Tatum has come, and how far he has left to go when the Celtics tip off their playoff series against the Nets on Sunday, and something tells me, the gap between the team’s two star wings isn’t anywhere near as prominent as it was 12 months ago.