Jayson Tatum's ascent into stardom is not hypothetical anymore.
This isn't a nod to any singular Tatum moment. He didn't need to detonate for 27 points in under 29 minutes on 10-of-18 shooting (5-of-8 from deep) during the Celtics' 139-107 shellacking of the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday night to receive a vote of confidence. Nor did he need to erupt for 41 points with a 16-of-22 shooting clip (6-of-9 from three) in a Jan. 11 beatdown of the New Orleans Pelicans to earn the benefit of the doubt.
Tying his place among the NBA's elite to one performance would be an overreaction, as well as a disservice to his entire season. His rise has been a process, admittedly more gradual than the insta-stardom implied by his rookie campaign.
"I just think he's going to be ever-improving," head coach Brad Stevens said after Tatum's 41-point game against the Pelicans, per WEEI's Nick Friar.
This year is his rebuttal to a stunted trajectory, insofar as his development ever hit a wall, and to those who believe his clout is more rooted in the team for which he plays than in his body of work.
It is the pervasive resistance outside Boston that feels most responsible for pinning Tatum's 2019-20 performance close to under the radar. He has become a lightning rod for skepticism and derision, the player most associated with the Celtics' penchant for overhyping and overvaluing their own prospects by refusing, at multiple turns, to consolidate them into proven stars.
Some of that fatigue is no doubt born from envy. Plenty of it is understandable.
Tatum was rushed to coronation in his first year, the bulk of which he spent beside two other stars, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving. Maybe he shouldn't have been fast-tracked for greatness after capitalizing on a simplified role and spearheading a shorthanded playoff push that included neither Irving nor Gordon Hayward.
His sophomore season was both disappointing and overscrutinized when measured against the bar set by his rookie year. The Celtics were too deep and therefore too complicated. Neither the rotation nor the vibe behind the scenes was conducive to facilitating the development of Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Terry Rozier.
Still, the lore of Tatum's rookie season persisted, rankling more than a few. The idea of him has always superseded reality. And while typical for most young players not yet in their prime, his stock was interpreted and applied in a way that, to many, was undeserved.
Why should his outlook be valued over that of Devin Booker or Brandon Ingram or Donovan Mitchell when he, on paper, has enjoyed a cozier gig? What had he done that warranted Boston, a team angling for immediate contention, making him untouchable in talks for Kawhi Leonard and, eventually, Anthony Davis?
Hindsight is kinder to the Celtics.
We know now how badly Leonard wanted to be in Los Angeles. Ditto for Davis. Holding onto prime prospects instead of flipping them for would-be/could-be rentals isn't usually considered bad form.
Tatum's situation, like his initial place in the league, was exacerbated by Boston's pattern of behavior. In those cases, it was the team's recurring preference to sit out superstar sweepstakes (Jimmy Butler, Paul George), aside from the Irving acquisition.
That doesn't make Tatum a victim. But it has invited intense focus on his shortcomings.
Don't raise your hands in protest if you've heard these before. You have.
Tatum is an inconsistent finisher around the rim. He doesn't get to the foul line nearly enough. He short-circuits too many of his own drives. He stole his shot profile from Kobe Bryant. His playmaking is below average. He can't carry the offense for long stretches; he needs a No. 1-option buffer.
Select aspects of Tatum's game were and are overblown—mainly his shot selection.
Working out with Kobe did not turn him into a mid-range machine as of last season. To have a problem with Tatum's in-between volume is to take issue with shot attempts ingrained into his game since Day 1. Just look at the frequency with which he's fired mid-range jumpers since entering the NBA:
- 2017-18: 35 percent
- 2018-19: 39 percent
- 2019-20: 35 percent
That uniformity doesn't give when isolating long mid-range shots—except for this season. Tatum has traded in a chunk of those looks for more threes (and shorter mid-range attempts).
Critiques of his passing do a better job of hitting the mark. He gets tunnel vision when attacking the rim and needs to improve his decision-making when dribbling into tough situations:
Among the 120 players averaging at least five drives per game, Tatum's 5.0 assist percentage ranks 114th. He is averaging more potential dimes per 36 minutes than last season but has the lowest assist rate of anyone with his usage.
Playmaking is probably the single biggest roadblock Tatum faces when headlining lineups without a superior scoring option beside him. The Celtics' offensive rating lands in the 38th percentile during the minutes he plays with Kemba Walker on the bench.
Those concerns, however valid, cannot detract from all that Tatum is doing right. He has become one of the most dangerous scorers in basketball.
Finishing around the rim still isn't his strong suit, but he's getting better. He's shooting 61.1 percent inside five feet since Dec. 15, up from 49.3 percent beforehand. He may be predictable on drives, but he's knocking down 54.3 percent of his looks on them during that same span.
So much intrigue has been tethered to his off-ball spacing, but he's turned into a more reliable shot creator. He's burying his off-the-dribble threes at a higher clip than his spot-up treys.
Few players are matching his amalgam of volume and efficiency on pull-up triples. Paul George, Devonte' Graham, James Harden, Damian Lillard and Walker are the only ones shooting 36 percent or better on those looks while launching at least three per game.
Tatum has racked up about as many points off unassisted three-pointers as CJ McCollum in far less playing time, per PBP Stats. He has shown the capacity to break down good to awesome defenders off the dribble. That brand of scoring is invaluable.
The optionality Tatum affords the Celtics on defense also cannot be overstated. He can adequately defend every wing position and has opportunistic hands both on and off the ball.
Robert Covington, Draymond Green and Jonathan Isaac are the only non-centers matching his defensive rebound, steal and block rates. Boston's defensive rating improves 6.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, a differential that ranks in the 91st percentile and tracks with how the team plays when he headlines lineups sans Walker.
More recent struggles that coincided with the Celtics' latest roller coaster might've convinced some that Tatum was back on the seesaw. He's not. He's played like an All-Star for most of this season, and his impact is so much more than his scoring flashes.
It is fitting that his latest big-time performance came against Anthony Davis, not because it was on national TV but because Davis was one of the many stars for whom the Celtics wouldn't trade him.
Torching the Lakers does not prove Tatum will ever reach that level. In reality, it doesn't prove anything at all. The proof is in the rest of Tatum's season and everything it means—most of all that he's played himself beyond one-game referendums.