Can the Boston Celtics Put Jayson Tatum Back on His Superstar Path?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2019

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 5: Jayson Tatum #0 celebrates with Marcus Morris #13 of the Boston Celtics during a timeout during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on February 5, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Celtics defeated the Cavaliers 103-96. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

To criticize Jayson Tatum's sophomore season is to vote against context. Knocks on his progress, while not entirely baseless, are mostly jabs at his start to the year, the Boston Celtics' roster makeup and the concept of insta-stardom.

Rushes to judgment work both ways, and Tatum reaped the benefits of reactionary takes in his first season. Everything about 2017-18 accelerated his trajectory. He first held his own as a second-to-third option after Gordon Hayward's opening-night injury. Then, following Kyrie Irving's own season-ending injury in March, he headlined Boston as a focal point.

No one expected this immediate rise—not even the Celtics. Tatum's debut season began with team president Danny Ainge assuming he wouldn't play enough to contend for Rookie of the Year. It ended with him nearly spearheading a series victory over LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Viewed against that bar, Tatum's 2018-19 campaign is a disappointing encore. His game has not appreciably evolved, he didn't earn an All-Star nod, and as Los Angeles Lakers fans will be quick to note, he's averaging fewer points than Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram, two prospects deemed not good enough to anchor an Anthony Davis trade.

Holes in those cherry-picking critiques abound, and Tatum maintains his alpha-option appeal. Without Irving on Tuesday, he led the Celtics to a win over the stacked, albeit new-to-each-other, Philadelphia 76ers. But the unflattering reviews of his year aren't without foundation.

Tie all of them together, and they speak to a larger, more uncomfortable issue: Tatum is a cornerstone prospect on a team that, if all goes according to plan, won't ever use him like one.

Boston isn't built to groom any single player into a hub right now. Irving, who's currently nursing a strained right knee, sits at the top of the pecking order, and it gets cloudy after him.

Tatum is the obvious No. 2, insofar as such a someone exists on the Celtics. He is second in scoring and usage rate (non-DJ Dozier division) and has logged more possessions without Irving than any other starter, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Except, well, this doesn't mean what it would on other teams.

Boston's roster doesn't allow for major leaps from individual players.
Boston's roster doesn't allow for major leaps from individual players.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Hardly anything about Tatum's approach changes during his solo stretches. He goes from averaging 15.2 shot attempts per 36 minutes alongside Irving to 15.8 without him. His playmaking responsibilities don't noticeably increase, and he isn't making up more of the offense by getting to the line. Neither his free-throw nor usage rate incur demonstrative spikes with Irving on the bench.

None of this is directly Tatum's fault. The Celtics bench isn't stocked with typical reserves; it includes Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier—a star trying to recapture his form, another could-be star and a starting-caliber (if overrated) point guard.

Each of them contributes to curbing Tatum's role. His me-time stints aren't that at all. Most of his time without Irving is spent beside at least two members from the Brown-Hayward-Rozier trio. He has tallied only 22 possessions without one of those four on the court, per Cleaning the Glass.

Exclude Rozier from this exercise, since working alongside point guards is not a novel concept, and the volume is similarly underwhelming. Tatum has played all of 385 possessions without Brown, Hayward and Irving.

Depth is not something to lament. Even as the Celtics hiccup their way through parts of this season, the sheer mass of talent around Tatum makes his job easier. Fewer of his looks are coming off assists, but more than 50 percent of his attempts are going uncontested, just like last year (53.1):


Hayward's return has put everyone on tilt. He counts as a brand-new player, and his integration has created an environment in which Boston's young pups must contend with one another. Both Brown (extension-eligible) and Rozier (restricted free agent) are angling for their next contracts, and Marcus Smart, who appeared in only 54 games last season, is making himself a factor with vastly improved three-point shooting.

Tatum's uneven start to the year only compounds these complications. He is still paying for his long-two addiction, even though it has become more of a recreation.

Almost 31 percent of his shots came from mid-range through Boston's first 20 games. That number has since dipped below 26 percent. It's still too high, but his overall long-two and mid-range frequency is right in line with last year's distribution, according to Cleaning the Glass.

This doesn't give Tatum a pass. His game has actual warts. He still settles for junky twos early in the shot clock:


He dribbles into low-percentage pull-up jumpers, even when he has the space and time to seek out something of higher quality:


And he could definitely stand to go at bigs. His handle is too dynamic for him to default to pull-ups against taller players:


Break it down per 36 minutes, and Tatum is finishing fewer drives than he did as a rookie. He's at roughly 6.1 on the season, down from 6.7 last year.

"Paint touches have gravity," MassLive.com's John Karalis wrote. "The closer the ball gets to the rim, the more defenders it draws, so honing his ability to get the ball into the lane will help Tatum rip defenses apart and then find open teammates who can swim in that wake and find their own offense."

It seemed like Tatum turned a corner around the new year, but the beginning of February has included some reversion. Here are Tatum's drives per 36 minutes separated by month:

Fewer attacks have coincided with fewer looks around the rim and fewer trips to the free-throw line. He is faring better in both departments since the start of February, but his returns are inflated by performances against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers:

Jayson Tatum's Shot Profile By Month
Month%FGA Inside 5 FeetFTAs per 36 Minutes
2018-19 Overall32.33.8
2017-18 Overall38.03.8
Stats via NBA.com.

Tatum needs to sustain his most recent upticks over a span of weeks, if not months, for them to be telltale of real change.

The upshot to all this: Tatum is 20 going on 21, barely one-and-a-half seasons into his NBA career. He struggles when covering smaller attackers, but his length and size otherwise shine through on defense. His shooting slashes have dipped, but he has the chance to become a special scorer. 

He's already a special scorer.

Only one other player has ever averaged 17 points and one made three-pointer per 36 minutes through his first two seasons while matching Tatum's true shooting percentage and playing time. His name? Stephen Curry.

Even as he's grappled with a wonky shot profile and inconsistent decision-making, Tatum's sophomore march stacks up to the exact type of player Boston wants him to be:


Jayson Tatum v. Paul George (Year 2) https://t.co/A1vIpqmMrp

Whether he reaches this pinnacle with the Celtics is another matter. They aren't presently set up for him to make that leap, and he could be long gone before he ever gets the opportunity.

Tatum may have single-handedly prevented the New Orleans Pelicans from trading Anthony Davis. Aside from Zion Williamson, he is considered the best possible return in a Davis deal. The Celtics couldn't acquire Davis this season due to a quirk in the collective bargaining agreement that precludes them from dealing for two players under designated rookie extensions, but Boston and New Orleans spoke at length about Tatum's potential inclusion this summer, according to The Athletic's Sam Amick

It might take that change scenery to get him the keys to a franchise. And for his part, Tatum may crave that shift.

"It's gossip, but the gossip is Jayson Tatum wouldn't mind if he's shipped to New Orleans and has a chance to be the face of the franchise somewhere," ESPN's Tim MacMahon said on The Hoop Collective podcast (h/t HoopsHype's Bryan Kalbrosky). "Because he's not going to get that opportunity in Boston, at least not in the immediate future."   

Whiffing on Davis and letting Rozier walk in restricted free agency doesn't change much for the Celtics. They would presumably still have Brown, Hayward, Irving and Horford. Tatum's push for distinction would still be a grind. It'd only get worse if they manage to land Davis without trading him.

Just how much can we expect Tatum's role to change if he stays in Boston?
Just how much can we expect Tatum's role to change if he stays in Boston?Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/Associated Press

For Tatum to assume a starring role in Boston anytime soon, the Celtics need to lose Irving (player option) in free agency and bow out of the Davis sweepstakes. Otherwise, he's doomed to walk the line between superstar and superstar complement, not unlike Klay Thompson's body of work with the Golden State Warriors.

That doesn't make Tatum a victim. Elevated expectations and ruthless commentary come with the effusive praise he enjoyed last season. Some good old folklore is at play, too. People tend to romanticize Boston's 2017-18, and in doing so, they forget the offense wasn't a force to fear after Irving went down.

But that doesn't give the doubting public license at large to overstate Tatum's struggles, or to hyperbolize the absence of an All-NBA leap. If nothing else, the Celtics shouldn't be worried about it. They have more pressing problems—like forfeiting massive leads to the Clippers and Lakers, Irving's knee, Hayward's progress, lackluster third quarters and, above all, transparently awkward chemistry.

Tatum's meteoric ascent turning into a gradual climb? That isn't a concern at all. Mostly because the Celtics aren't built for him to be too much more than he is now.

They may never be. 


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on Feb. 13. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by SLC Dunk's Andrew Bailey.


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