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Jayson Tatum & Derrick White: the making of a two-man game

Tatum and White have proven to work well together.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

In the modern-day NBA, play initiation isn’t the sole responsibility of the point guard. Instead, players from all over the court are relied upon to make the right read or trigger the correct action in response to a defensive coverage.

Oftentimes, the development of a play, action, or offensive sequence isn’t down to a single player, particularly a point guard. Two-man games often play a significant part in a successful offense, especially if there are multiple two-man actions a team can go to throughout the season.

The most logical option is a big-plus-guard action, where you attack out of the pick-and-roll before finding what shot the defense is giving you. Yet, as the NBA continues to evolve, so does how offense is generated. Inverted actions - where a smaller player screens for a bigger player - are now commonplace within the league, such is the development in all-around talent among wings and bigs.

In truth, Marcus Smart was never an elite table-setter for the Celtics. He was their best passer. He could also hit some wild dimes at times. But a playmaking guard, Smart is not. Nevertheless, Boston will need to revamp some of their offensive principles to empower others to pick up some of the slack. Most of that weight will fall onto the shoulders of Derrick White, who will replace Smart in the starting lineup.

Fortunately, White has been with the team long enough that he’s already got a budding two-man game with Jayson Tatum.

Last season, White assisted on 78 made buckets for Tatum, accounting for 186 points, which is 28 more assists than his next closest benefactor, Jaylen Brown. In return, Tatum fed White on 53 occasions, accounting for 134 points. So, in total, Tatum and White combined for 320 points throughout the season, per PBP Stats.

Between them, White and Tatum are a diverse one-two punch, who can both attack off the catch, the rip-through, in the short-roll, or by dragging out their dribble for making ‘the next right read.’

Take the above play, for instance. White comes off an Al Horford screen; Tatum sets a second screen (known as a ‘77’ action) before slipping the contact and receiving the ball from White on the short roll. From there, Tatum is free to go to work in space, allowing him to attack the rim and force a defensive collapse.

White is also a reliable screener — something which Ime Udoka valued from smaller players during his maiden season with the Celtics — and can continually spring Tatum free on the perimeter while also forcing mismatches to give the All-NBA forward a better chance of success.

The above possession is out of Boston’s ‘wedge punch’ playbook, in which White sets a wedge screen to get Tatum into the post. White then hits the post-entry pass and allows Tatum to go to work. Little actions like these will be a wrinkle that defenses have to contend with while other members of the roster are either spacing the floor or running actions of their own.

There are countless clips that show the connection between Tatum and White from last season. However, I’ll end it on this one, where White cuts off-ball before instantly kicking the rock back to Tatum, who is ghosting his cut from the weakside baseline. Selfless passing from White, smart movement from Tatum, and the ideal clip for displaying a connectedness between two players.

There are countless situations and variations in which Tatum and White can interlink on the offensive end — most of which will only serve to benefit the Celtics' fluidity and unpredictability.

Running an offense through a wing/guard combo isn’t the traditional route to a successful offense. However, the Celtics have so many weapons, and multiple high-level passers, that any potential two-man game between White and Tatum would only be one aspect of their offensive system.

In a perfect world, there will be multiple two-man games that the Celtics could lean on throughout the season. With Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, Robert Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and Al Horford, the combinations are plentiful, and the upside is limitless.

Still, having a core of one or two sets of two-man actions will allow the Celtics to focus and hone in during half-court sets.

While it’s worth noting that neither White nor Tatum are high-level playmakers themselves, they’ve both shown the ability to be play starters. Having the rock in their hands at the beginning of actions or sequences, and making reads based on what the defense gives up, is an area where both players shone last season.

If Joe Mazzulla opts to use Tatum and White as play starters while working together, then that will only afford the Celtics more options to attack out of. The interesting part will occur when we begin to see who develops an on-court relationship with Porzingis and whether those additional two-man actions can be used to elevate the play starting of White and Tatum throughout the upcoming season.

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