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Jayson Tatum and the variance problem

Jayson Tatum is a high variance superstar, but is that a good thing?

Boston Celtics v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

On the most recent episode of First to the Floor, Ben, Jake, and I broke down the gutty win against the Timberwolves that was simultaneously encouraging and disappointing. The disappointment mainly resided with the C’s mercurial superstar. Jayson Tatum is, at times, a frustrating player to watch. A do-it-all wing that sometimes doesn’t feel like doing it all, a great shooter that only takes difficult shots; an improving finisher that doesn’t always get into position to finish. In short, Tatum has a way of making things more difficult on himself than it needs to be.

Tatum started the season playing the best basketball of his life, 31-8.1-4 on 61.3 TS% and 55.0 EFG% from the start of the season to the end of December. High level scoring on elite efficiency. Notably, his assists were down, below even his 4.4 average from last year. The reason? Where he was getting the ball. Since December, the assists are way up, 5.5, but the efficiency is a different story; true shooting is down to 58.6% and the EFG% to 51.9%. Both are solid but unspectacular.

In a basketball sense, making things difficult on the offensive end really boils down to where you start with the ball, and Tatum’s been starting with the ball in positions that aren’t conducive to what makes him great. All you have to do is look at the stats.

His elbow touches since January 1 are down slightly, from 2.9 to 2.6. His paint touches are down from 3.4 to 2.7. That’s not a lot, but it’s indicative of a general transformation in how he’s playing. He’s basically turning one possession a game from an elbow touch or paint touch into a pull up three (those have increased by almost exactly 1 during this same time frame). His time of possession went from 4.3 to 5.5, and his dribbles per touch are up from 2.6 to 3.1. He’s turning back into a ball dominant, moderately efficient wing and away from the quick decision-making finisher he was in the first half.

While it’s important for a star wing to be able to run a pick and roll and get into a pull-up three, there’s just absolutely zero reason Tatum should be relying on that for such an absurd amount of his offensive possessions. He’s taking 5.5 a game on 29% shooting since January 1. I understand that 3 > 2 and the math works in favor of taking a lot of threes, but sometimes limiting variance within a game is more important than winning the math on a macro level through the course of a season.

Take his two most recent performances. Tatum went 12/38 from the floor in those games, that includes a very not good 2/18 from 3. This upside is that he was 10/20 from 2 and shot 20 free throws (16 of them against Minnesota). The variability of Tatum’s 3-point shooting sunk the Celtics against the Rockets and nearly did against the Wolves. Simply put, he should trade a couple of 3s a game for touches and possessions like this.

Tatum as the roll man, gets a high post touch, moves it quick, then floats into the soft spot of the defense. He’s wreaking havoc on the Heat’s defense without having to bear the burden of operating as a primary handler.

Or more stuff where he’s operating out of the high post or the elbow area.

And most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, Jayson Tatum needs to get into the post more.

His baseline spin is absolutely devastating, and he can turn off either shoulder into a fadeaway or face you up and shoot right over the top.

Tatum has the highest points per touch on post ups in the league. He is the most efficient post-up player in the league on a per touch basis. That is absurd. Oh, and elbow touches, unfortunately, he’s not the most efficient player in the league on those types of touches. But he is seventh, behind a handful of hyper efficient scorers like Kevin Durant and KAT, and also, he’s behind James Wiseman somehow. Getting the ball in these areas also leads to more fouls and it bends the defense in unique ways. Teams are used to guarding high screen and roll 40 times a night, but they don’t often have to rely on their SF to guard an elite post threat.

In order to battle variance, Tatum needs to diversify his attack and catch the ball in these types of dangerous positions more often, instead of being asked to run a dozen pick and rolls a game. While a three is worth more than a two, sometimes you need to keep your team in a game by turning possessions into points more regularly, regardless of whether it’s the most efficient way of going about it by the numbers. Tatum is clearly comfortable scoring in the post and around the elbows, and that’s the beauty of his game. He has all of the weapons at his disposal, now it’s time to unleash them.

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