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Jayson Tatum’s shooting took a weird turn, and the Celtics need him to get back to normal

This season was an odd one for Tatum and his three-point shot.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Boston Celtics to be at their best, they need Jayson Tatum to be at his best.

Obviously, most would agree with that statement. Tatum is Boston’s best player, so if they want to push for a championship, he’ll be the one to lead them there. He’s a four-time All-Star and likely to make the All-NBA First Team for the second time this season.

However, after an MVP-caliber start to the year, Tatum hit a rough patch. Post-All-Star break, he struggled with his shot. He finished the season shooting 35.0% from three-point land -- the worst mark of his career.

He still finished the year with impressive numbers, and through the first four games of the playoffs, he’s been much more efficient, but therein lies the question mark.

On the March 22 edition of “The Old Man& The Three,” JJ Redick, Tommy Alter, and ESPN’s Tim Legler were discussing Tatum’s season. Redick relayed the following message:

“We’ve seen Jayson Tatum perform at a superstar level for most of last season and most of this season. To me, some of this is just that he hasn’t been able to make jumpers, especially when they matter. And I hate oversimplifying things, but some of it is just that.”

For the majority of his career, Tatum has been one of the better three-point shooting stars in the NBA. His efficiency has dropped as his attempts have increased, but that’s to be expected to some degree. The intriguing and potentially concerning stat to watch has been Tatum’s success on non-standard threes.

Shot selection is an oft-criticized aspect of the game, especially for shooters. The situation, timing, and positioning of the shot all come into play. For Tatum, his four All-Star seasons have been defined by the non-standard jumpers for better or worse.

Non-standard threes are anything other than a stand-still jumper. These include pull-ups, runners, step-backs, or any combination of the three (i.e. running pull-ups).

Over the last four years, Tatum has been great at those types of shots, and for the last three, they’ve accounted for roughly 45-49% of his three-point attempts. Here’s a look at Tatum’s All-Star seasons from 2020 to 2023:

Tatum 3s

Season Overall Standstill Percentage of total Movement Percentage of total
Season Overall Standstill Percentage of total Movement Percentage of total
2022-2023 240/686 (34.9%) 140/357 (39.2%) 52.0% 100/329 (30.4%) 48.0%
2021-2022 230/651 (35.3%) 120/359 (33.4%) 55.1 % 110/292 (37.6%) 44.9%
2020-2021 187/485 (38.6%) 93/247 (37.7%) 50.9% 94/238 (39.5%) 49.1%
2019-2020 189/469 (40.3%) 140/357 (39.2%) 76.1% 49/112 (43.8) 23.9%

The first numbers are Tatum’s three-point totals, including all attempts and what he shot overall. The second numbers are his numbers on stand-still, normal jumpers from behind the arc, including his makes, attempts, efficiency, and the percentage of total threes they made up. And the third numbers are the same but for his non-standard threes (pull-ups, step-backs, etc.)

What should jump off the page first is Tatum’s success on non-stand-still threes. Shooting 37% on all threes can be considered above average, so to reach that mark on pull-ups, step-backs, and runners is incredible.

For reference, in his best shooting season (2019-20), Damian Lillard shot 42.1% on non-standard threes. In his MVP season (2017-18), James Harden shot 45.1%. With the number of threes stars take, shooting around or over 40% on those shots is reserved for the best of the best. (At his peak, Stephen Curry shot 69.7% on those looks.)

Tatum’s shot-making efficiency behind the arc slowly decreased through those three seasons, but 37.6% is still a respectable mark. Oddly enough, his shooting on stand-still jumpers took a major dip last year.

This year, everything changed.

His efficiency on stand-still threes skyrocketed on virtually the same number of attempts, but his efficiency on other threes took a massive dip. Tatum went from shooting 37.6% to shooting 30.4% in just one season — and he only added 35 attempts to the total.

While his improvement on stand-still threes should be encouraging with how much he has the ball in his hands, he will naturally take a lot of pull-ups. On strictly pull-ups, Tatum went from shooting 38.8% in 2021-22 to 29.2% this season.

The stark drop in efficiency led to a string of less-than-stellar shooting performances in mid-to-late March. In seven games from March 13 to March 28, Tatum shot just 31.9% overall from distance. Boston went just 4-3 in those games.

And as for Tatum’s shooting in the clutch, he shot just 21.7% on threes.

So, for the Celtics to be at their best, they need Tatum to be at his best, and for that to happen, he needs to re-find his jumper.

Through the first four games of this year’s playoffs, things are looking up. Tatum is shooting 16-of-40 (40%) from deep, including 5-of-13 on pull-up threes and 3-of-7 on step-backs.

In the Celtics’ one loss, Tatum shot 4-of-11 from three-point range. That’s a cool 36.4%. A fairly average number for a star on high volume. However, a closer look reveals that he shot 2-of-4 on standard jumpers and 2-of-7 on the rest. That’s 50.0% vs. 28.6%.

It’s all a balance, though. Celtics fans may hesitate to urge Tatum to take a lot of pull-up threes, but it’s more about the timing than the quantity.

For example, take a look at this pull-up attempt:

At face value, Tatum should be able to make this shot. But the context behind it provides a different light. By this point, Tatum had missed his last three attempts from deep, and there were still 12 seconds left on the shot clock. After the miss, the Atlanta Hawks got a bucket on the other end, extending their lead to six.

That being said, Tatum getting back to normal on his pull-up attempts also helps lead to plays such as this one:

Tatum nailed a big-time three from the logo with his back against the wall and the shot clock winding down. And up to that point, he was having a brutal shooting night. He was 3-for-12 from distance, and that included 2-of-3 on stand-still jumpers.

Led by Tatum, Boston secured the second seed in the Eastern Conference this year, racing out to a top-five offense and defense. And that’s all while Tatum had by far his worst season shooting non-stand-still threes.

The Celtics don’t need Tatum to be shooting his best on pull-ups for them to win, but if he is, it opens things up a ton. He’s always been a great shooter on those looks, but, to put it simply, he just had a down year.

At first glance, he shot basically the same from deep this year and last year, but his success on the two major types of attempts changed dramatically. And for a player who takes as many pull-ups and step-backs as Tatum, especially in crucial moments of games, that huge drop-off was glaring.

Moving forward in the postseason, the improvement Tatum has already shown needs to continue. It’s what should be the norm for him. And outside of this year’s regular season, it has been the norm.

If he can get back to that, the Celtics offense we saw in the regular season will be elevated to a whole other level.

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