It’s Year 7 of the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown partnership, but this season has a bit more oomph than the last six.
Not only has President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens given the Jays the keys to the kingdom, he’s effectively rid the Celtics of any potential pretenders to the throne narrative. Marcus Smart was a Celtics icon and Grant Williams, Robert Williams, and Malcolm Brogdon were valued contributors. They’re gone, and now the buck stops with JB and JT.
Even so, Jaylen made sure to emphasize that he would always be grateful that he got to play with the players the team lost in order to reload the roster—referring specifically to Smart and Williams III, two players he had spent nearly his whole career with.
“Regardless of what jersey [Smart] has on, that’s my brother. I feel the same way about Rob.” Jaylen said when asked how he felt about the trades. “Everybody has a journey. I know those guys are going to do great.”
While acknowledging how much his former teammates mattered, Tatum emphasized that the goal of training camp is to get this new group on the same beat.
“We play a team sport,” Tatum said. “You want everybody to be on the same page.”
Many fans worried that the loss of Smart would remove a critical layer of toughness from a team that has sometimes looked scared in the face of more swagger-laden opponents. But it’s equally likely that Smart’s departure will force a greater degree of accountability on the team’s franchise cornerstones. Sometimes the team would use Smart’s fiery demeanor as an excuse not to confront their opponents directly. That will have to change.
“We’ve got a lot of voices that are no longer with us,” Jaylen said at Media Day, referring directly to Grant Williams, Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III. “[we will be] hearing my voice some more this season, JT’s voice a little more this season.”
There’s also the question of Jaylen’s new contract, which dominated Celtics discourse for the first half of the summer. He has already proven that he is worth that amount of money, but he will have to sustain that level of play throughout the next five years in order to maximize the Celtics’ championship window.
Jaylen was asked how his new contract affected him this summer, but made it clear his focus this summer was squarely on the task at hand. He singled out his public workouts with Tatum as particularly important.
“I think we’ve worked out in the summer before, but I think nobody was paying attention to it then.” Jaylen said, referencing the sometimes speculative ways the media treats his offseason workouts. “I guess everybody’s paying attention to it now. Got in with Drew [Hanlen] and JT and just started building.”
I’ve been all over the map with how to parse Jaylen’s role on this team, as he is either a close 1B to Tatum’s 1A — sometimes looking like the best player on the floor — or a star-but-not-quite-superstar that has soared above what everyone expected him to be but struggled to remove the final weaknesses from his game.
The Celtics will need Jaylen to be great like always, but they also need him to be able to take the reins should Tatum get injured — as he did in Game 7 of the 2023 ECF — or just not feel it on any one night. I’m still waiting on Jaylen’s superhero moment, but I know it will come.
It’s not as though Tatum is the perfect basketball wizard-ninja either. The great ones find new things to add to their arsenal even if they look complete. Tatum clearly gets this, and discussed what he wants to continue to add with NBCSN’s Eddie House.
“Being able to dictate what I want to do, being able to dominate the game, not just scoring but all areas,” Tatum said, after House compared him to an NBA 2K player with all 99 ratings. “I would love to make one of those All-Defense teams… that’s something I want to hang my hat on.”
As if they weren’t already through the roof, the additions of Jrue “the Jruth” Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis set the expectations for the Jays-core squarely into the atmosphere. The Celtics have pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, and then asked the dealer to load up another couple million and pushed that in, too.
After the Holiday trade, Porzingis’ importance to the thinned-out frontcourt is even that much greater. Even with the risk, Tatum said he was very excited to play with Porzingis.
“He just adds another dynamic of versatility.” Tatum said of Porzingis’ game. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a presence as tall as [Porzingis].”
As for playing with Holiday, Jaylen emphasized how excited he was to finally share the court with someone he has battled with for so long.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Jrue, he plays with a certain force that you can feel,” Jaylen said. “To play alongside [him] will be a tremendous honor.”
Tatum echoed this excitement, adding that he had the privilege of playing with Holiday on the US Olympic team, where the two won a gold medal. Tatum noted his commitment to both sides of the ball and his championship caliber.
“Jrue is a great player,” Tatum said. “As respected as anybody in this league.”
Media Day may be a time for talking, but just like the 1954 Hickory High team, the Celtics are way past big speeches. Like it or not — but I, for one, like it — Tatum and Jaylen are the beating heart that this team will live and die by, so come training camp, it’s time to get to work.
“I’m ready for tomorrow,” Tatum said. “I’m ready to go out there and compete.”