Jayson Tatum, Small Forward
Relevant Details: 6’8”, wears #0. Pretty good at basketball, but his real value to the Celtics is providing quality Deuce courtside content.
High-end prediction: Tatum goes nuclear, breaking some sort of scoring record and wresting control of the coveted “Everyone-Thinks-He’s-the-Best-Player-in-the-World” belt away from Nikola Jokic. Tatum wins his first Most Valuable Player Award and is unequivocally the best player on the court in every playoff series. Tatum and Deuce hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy together and all of Celtics Nation melts from happiness overload.
(takes a moment to savor the glory of that image)
Reasonable prediction: Tatum continues his tenure on the All-NBA First Team and adds additional levels of complexity to his already super-duper-mega star game. His defense goes from great to suffocating, along with more elaborate finishing moves in and around the painted area. By April, Tatum is universally heralded as the premier wing in the NBA, not that he wasn’t already in the conversation.
Low-end prediction: Barring injury, any sort of regression for Tatum is very, very unlikely but not completely impossible. It’s possible Tatum’s counting stats look less impressive if Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis eat into his shot totals, but that hardly means he’s actually a worse player. Merely repeating his last season would still be great for the Celtics, and at his age, it’s very hard to see him moving backwards.
(Brace yourself because I’m about to date myself, but not in the way people usually mean when they say they’re about to date themselves.)
Myself—and the entire next generation of Celtics fans—have a special relationship with Jayson Tatum, because he’s the first superstar whose entire development I can remember.
I can hear the rest of the CelticsBlog staff groaning in pain at that comment, because Tatum was drafted in 2017, which—if you’re keeping score—wasn’t really that long ago. But I was 14 in 2017, and traditionally think about my sports fandom in two distinct eras: B.O. (Before-Oliver, or pre-2012) and A.O. (Anno-Olivieri, or post-2012).
That’s because I can tell you the exact moment that I realized that I really cared about the fates of Boston sports teams: the fourth quarter of the 2012 Super Bowl, when it hit me that the Patriots were actually about to lose to the Giants.
Nine-year-old me rapidly had an existential crisis, realizing that this was deeply troubling to me. I was always a card-carrying Boston sports fan before then, but until then I hadn’t begun the process of surgically replacing parts of my brain with thoughts about sports. That all started in 2012, and continues to this day.
I always knew about Paul Pierce and how great he was, but it’s not like I remember him falling all the way to the 10th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, or how absurd it was that the Philadelphia 76ers thought Larry Hughes was a better bet than Pierce.
Nor do I remember how bonkers the Kevin Garnett trade was, or how awesome it was in 2008 to beat the L.A. Lakers in the NBA Finals for the first time since the 1980s. I do remember being at the Duck Boat parade on my dad’s shoulders.
But Tatum occupies a different space for me. I can tell you where I was when I heard the Celtics had traded the Markelle Fultz pick to the 76ers. I was in New Hampshire at a friend’s house, and one of our dads texted the words “I really hope Fultz doesn’t turn into Jordan,” to which we all agreed.
And I can tell you where I was when Tatum dominated the Summer League. Sitting on my couch at home. Yeah, that’s the whole story, not all of these are that cool.
I was at my cousin’s house when he dunked on LeBron James, and driving home from school when my friend Henry and I decided once and for all that he was officially better than Jaylen Brown. You get the idea.
I cannot (nor will I try to) speak for those whose mature sports fandom goes back further than 2012, but to me, Tatum is the culmination of all my hopes and wishes for the Celtics to date. He became the face of the franchise right as I became an adult, and any desire I have for a championship in the next ten years are tied up in Tatum’s development as a superstar.
That’s not to say he can or will win a championship single-handedly. Much of the backlash surrounding the Marcus Smart trade came squarely from those hoping to keep the team’s emotional continuity intact, an argument I disagree with but respect.
But as we saw during last year’s playoff run, the buck stops with Tatum. When he’s ice-cold, the team doesn’t have a great backup plan.
Think of the Celtics like the staff of a new late night talk show trying to get off the ground. It’s a team effort, and everyone—from producers, writers, sound-techs and camera operators—needs to play their part well for this to work.
But at the end of the day, the success of the show is going to hinge on the host. If Conan O’Brien wasn’t really into it, Conan never would have made it to its 11th season. Tatum is the host, and the Celtics are trying to get “The Boston Bunch” to the top of Nielsen’s year-end rankings.
(Yes, I chose Conan O’Brien because he went to my high school, and yes, Jaylen Brown is Andy Richter.)
So how are they going to do that? His game is so sophisticated that it’s hard to identify one thing to improve upon, but Tatum just said he wants to be one of the all-time greats, and that’s going to take another level of baller-ness to do.
That’s because the great ones figure out things to add to their game, even when they might seem complete. Seemingly infinite addition is often what separates really awesome players from true greatness.
Later in his career, Michael Jordan—already considered one of the greatest of all time—installed a lethal fade-away into his repertoire once his dunking ability had been limited with age. LeBron James figured out a bully ball post-game right around age-30, and his game has aged like fine wine.
But what about someone like Allen Iverson? He was awesome, and has benefited greatly from the YouTube era of vintage basketball highlights. But his game was so explosive, so jacked up on caffeine, that it aged more like a 2007 Michelob Ultra. Once the injuries hit him, he was out of the league before anyone even noticed he left.
If Tatum is going to fulfill the prophecy, and complete the mission that every generation of Celtics fans is hedging their prayers on, he’s going to do it through addition. I can’t speak for other great Celtics, but I know Tatum is capable of world-beating improvement. After all, I’ve seen it with my own eyes this whole time.