We assumed Jayson Tatum would take a leap this year. We didn’t know it would like this.
With just over eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter, and the Celtics up 16, looking to close one out on the road and send the fans home early, Jayson Tatum made a cross-over dribble on seven footer Hassan Whiteside, stepped back from about 30 feet and hit the three-ball in his face with Whiteside draped all over him.
Last year, Tatum probably gives that ball up to Kyrie Irving or settles for a wildly contested mid-ranger.
Tatum has sufficiently developed the rarely-possessed Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, LeBron James-esque “screw you” three where he simply pulls up right in front of your face from long range and stares you down as he struts down the court.
For me, it’s moments like that when I realize that Tatum is becoming that guy. Someone that you can just give the ball to in the 4th quarter and say “go to work”. A guys that win Championships. A guy like LeBron, Durant, and Kawhi. We saw glimpses of it in the 2017 playoffs, especially against LeBron James and the Cavs, but the star in the making was nowhere to be found last season.
The Celtics have been looking for “the guy” since the Paul Pierce trade. They thought they had it in Kyrie Irving, but that obviously ended in a ball of flames. Isaiah Thomas was just a flash in the pan. Kemba Walker, for as lovable and talented as he is, doesn’t possess the size to escape double-teams or shoot over guys.
Tatum is just different. He can glide to the rim at will, pull-up from anywhere from on the court, and is an All-NBA caliber defender to boast. He truly reminds me of Kevin Durant. His length allows him to finish with ease in traffic, and his lightening-quick, high release prevents defenders from altering his lethal jumper. On the defensive end, his wingspan prevents even the most fleet-of-foot slashers to get into the lane consistently.
Of course, the most important aspect of his development this year is his shot selection. Last year he settled far too often on deep mid-range jump shots, which he just could not hit consistently. He barely got to the free-throw line, (just 2.9 attempts per game), and didn’t shoot the three ball as well or as much as most assumed he would. This year he’s changed his game completely, nearly doubling his three-point attempts from 3.9 to 7.0, and improving his three point shooting percentage from .373 to .395. As a result, his points per game average has ballooned from 15.7 to 23.1.
But it isn’t just the numbers that show Tatum’s ascension, it’s also the eye test. His confidence is simply at another level. Last year it seemed like he didn’t have the confidence to get to the basket in traffic because his handle was too loose and it was easily stripped. Now, his handle is tight and getting to the basket has become a strength. He’s gotten creative with his finishes to the point where he’s breaking out moves we haven’t seen in Boston since Paul Pierce. This month he’s played against Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis, and was the best player on the court by far, outscoring each of them in duels with the Clippers and Lakers. If that doesn’t display his status in the league, I don’t know what will.
Come playoff time, Tatum will be the X-factor. The Celtics will go as far as he can take them. He’ll have to outplay the likes of Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, and Giannis Antetokounmpo to take the next step and reach the NBA Finals. Certainly not an easy task, but it’s one that he signed up for.
One thing’s for sure, he won’t be lacking the confidence this year.
*All stats via Basketball Reference