Adding new wrinkles to your game is a prerequisite to becoming an elite player in the NBA. Every summer is another opportunity to diversify your skillset, fix any bugs you found in the prior season, and take another step in your growth as a player. There is always something to work on, something to add, or something to fix.
This past summer, Jayson Tatum had the luxury of a full off-season, which was one of the, if not the first, in his career. We’ve all witnessed the improved floater game and his improvements in finishing through traffic. But there has been another subtle improvement that has allowed the Boston Celtics to punish defenses who switch the pick-and-roll — Tatum has become a legitimate threat as a roll man.
Now, I’m not saying that Tatum is spamming this action; instead, both he and the coaching staff are being judicial when they decide to feature him as the roller, with it taking place 90 times in the 55 games he has participated in, per Synergy Sports. However, those 90 possessions already outweigh the 75 we saw from him last season, and the multitude of ways Tatum is hurting the defense in these actions has led to some easy buckets.
With it being the All-Star break, I wanted to take a moment to look at a few of these possessions a little closer to illustrate the growing diversity within Tatum’s roll-man game.
When we think of what makes a good roll-man, we often jump to size, explosiveness, and physicality, yet in truth, there are two other skills that vastly outway the others: timing and patience. Timing, because if you cut too hard or too slow, then the defense can swallow the passing lane, rendering the action dead. Patience, because if you slip too fast/slow, the intended switch might not occur, and then the desired mismatch doesn’t present itself.
As you watch the above clip, watch how patient Tatum remains after Derrick White comes off the screen, dragging his dribble away from Tatum and Kyrie Irving to ensure Kevin Durant fully commits to the switch. Once Durant is fully committed, Tatum, who has sealed Irving, cuts towards the rim, timing his movements to ensure his in position to receive the pocket pass, which blows the whole defense wide open and leads to one of the easiest dunks he’s going to get all season.
Another way to ensure that Tatum’s possessions as the roll-man contain a shock factor for the defense is by disguising them inside of actions the team consistently runs throughout a game. In the above action, we see the Celtics run a ‘chin action’ as a guise for their true intention of having Tatum roll to the rim after setting a screen.
As detailed in the clip above, Smart’s non-ball-side cut engages the nail defender, creating the necessary space for Tatum to peel off his man and begin pressuring the rim. It’s here, as the ball is passed to the St. Louis native that we see some of his improvements start to shine through, most notably with his drop step to find the open pocket behind the closing-in defenders, allowing him to get the bucket while also drawing the foul.
The Celtics also have the added bonus of having two genuine All-Star wings at their disposal, so it makes sense that they would look to utilize Tatum’s budding skills as a roller while utilizing Jaylen Brown’s scoring gravity to stretch the defense.
What’s interesting in the above clip is that Brown is the first one to set a screen before slipping it and occupying a spot in the mid-post (and eventually drifting out to the wing), allowing Tatum to flow into an on-ball screen for Marcus Smart.
As Tatum starts to cut (timing), Brown relocates (which I wrongly annotated as an L-Cut in the clip (it was early)), and Horford threatens to cut baseline; thus, the defense has some tough decisions to make and gives Tatum that extra half step he needs to get airborne before the Miami Heat defense are in a position to genuinely challenge his shot.
This is the last clip I will use that is annotated, yet it’s also one of the more interesting ones, as rather than using Brown as a method of occupying the defense, the Celtics are running him and Tatum in the same pick-and-roll action. Again, we see Tatum time his slip while also angling his movement to create a pocket his defender can’t get to without diving on the floor. Credit to the Phoenix Suns for having their weakside low man come over to tag the roll and offer some help defense. However, when Tatum is in space near the basket, contesting his shot is almost a defacto foul.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Tatum is currently having his most prolific season within 4 feet of the rim, finishing 71% of his attempts which places him in the 76th percentile of wings. For a player who garners so much defensive attention and whom opposing teams consistently scheme against, finding new and intuitive ways to spring him free is essential, which is why we’ve seen multiple different actions to get Tatum operating as a the roll-man rather than simply asking him to be a high pick-and-roll threat like you would with a genuine big man — although that does, and will happen from time to time.
It will be interesting to see if teams start anticipating the use of Tatum as the roller once the season resumes and we enter the final stretch of games before the playoffs get underway. Still, the Celtics boast too much scoring and ball-handling for defenses to overcompensate to limit Tatum’s penetration when he rolls, and something tells me that Joe Mazzulla has some other actions up his sleeve that he’s waiting for the playoffs to unleash.
Until then, it’s going to be fun watching the different ways in which Boston disguises Tatum before he springs loose.