Every year of his career, Tatum has put on weight and gotten stronger. However, this season, Tatum added something else, something that’s fundamental to the game of basketball, but something that can be overlooked if you’ve spent your entire life being bigger and stronger than your opponents and thus didn’t have to utilize it.
After the conclusion of last year’s NBA Finals, there was a clear area lacking in Jayson Tatum’s offensive game: his inability to finish with strength around the rim. Tatum must’ve heard the chatter regarding this weakness, because he got into the gym and aggressively deepened his finishing bag this season.
I’m talking about a left hand. Yes, a left hand — the thing your rec league coach told you to work on in 5th grade.
This season, Tatum has gotten significantly more comfortable finishing with his left in traffic. He looks like a completely different player than last year when he drives downhill, elevates, and extends his left arm out for the finish. His length, skill, and ball handling ability always made him a threat when driving to the hoop. The expansion of his left hand, though, has added a completely different element to JT’s game.
What do the numbers really say?
At first glance, Tatum hasn’t improved his left-handed finishing from last season to this season. Tatum shot 53% at the rim with his left hand last year but only 49% in the same circumstances this year. But, sometimes numbers require further investigation.
In 104 games last season, Tatum attempted just 94 lefty layups. This season, in only 43 games, JT has attempted 70 lefty layups according to InStat Basketball. He went from taking fewer than one lefty layup a game to taking almost two a game this season. That’s a pretty big jump in just one season.
And, as for the slight dip in lefty layup percentage — big whoop. If a player took 10 threes in one season and made 4 of them (40%), no one would bat an eye if they made only 35 out of 100 threes in the next season. This is because adding a completely new element to your game is likely to incur some speed bumps, and it’s difficult to maintain the same level of efficiency when ramping up the volume all of a sudden.
To put it more plainly, Tatum rarely shot lefty layups last season because he wasn’t that good at them; he primarily shot them when he was loosely guarded. This season, though, his percentage has decreased because he’s taking more difficult lefty layup attempts at the rim. And, to be frank, it’s actually pretty impressive that the percentage didn’t dip more with the increase in volume.
Regardless, the lefty finishing numbers will only increase with a larger sample size, if I had to guess. Let’s revisit these numbers towards the end of the season and see if they’ve improved (I bet they will have).
What does the film say?
Tatum has made leaps in a few different lefty finishing areas since last season. First, he has gotten a lot better at taking contact from the defender and finishing through it with strength and aggression. Part of that might just be added weight, but a mindset shift is also apparent.
Here’s an example from the Finals where Tatum was unable to finish through contact with the left. Part of this is because he has no confidence elevating at the rim and finishing on that side.
Here, though, Tatum holds his line to the hoop against a really strong defender in Bruce Brown and is still able to finish with the left despite some contact.
Deuce’s dad also added a nice reverse finish to his arsenal. It simply wasn’t in his bag last year, but he’s utilized it sparingly this season and continues to look more comfortable with it. Like virtually every other part of Tatum’s game, this will likely progress with time.
He unleashes this new move in the first game of the season against Philly. Embiid is ready to contest the shot on the right side of the rim, and it probably would have been a block if he went up on that side.
A month and a half later against Toronto, JT already looks even more confident going to this move.
The most noticeable difference in Tatum’s left-handed finishing is his ability to extend all the way out and still finish with control and touch around the rim.
Tatum just doesn’t look comfortable at all extending here. He doesn’t have the strength or skill in his left hand to finish at the other side of the rim.
Here, Tatum tries to make a tough floater with his right, even though he probably could’ve driven through Poole’s body and finished with his left.
On this play, though, Tatum operates quickly and extends high and wide with the left, showing a completely new level of comfortability in his left hand. It’s just so tough to stop when someone that long, strong, and athletic is able to elevate and finish with confidence going both ways.
I mean, this is just a thing of absolute beauty. With the length that Tatum possesses, he can make some pretty explosive and smooth looking finishes at the rim, and this is one of them.
It’s been well documented how much stronger Jayson Tatum has gotten every season. His improved passing chops have also been a topic of conversation over this past season and a half as JT has moved more squarely into the MVP conversation. His left hand hasn’t really been talked about, though, and despite the fact that the stats don’t necessarily suggest it superficially, the eye test shows that his left-handed finishing has been one of the most glaring developments he’s made as an NBA player.