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Jayson Tatum Giving Celtics' Title Window Jolt It Needs: An All-NBA Cornerstone

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistFebruary 29, 2020

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - FEBRUARY 26: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics handles the ball against the Utah Jazz on February 26, 2020 at vivint.SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images)
Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum has always had an enzymatic relationship with the Boston Celtics' championship timeline. Even before the offense ran through him, his development was both catalyst and barometer. Their title window could only ever open as fast and far as his ascent would allow it.

During his rookie season, the Celtics' fate was tied to his fit beside Kyrie Irving and then, eventually, his capacity to do more in the absence of both the point guard and Gordon Hayward. They ended up pushing the LeBron James-piloted Cleveland Cavaliers to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Last season, his sophomore campaign, Boston's place in the Eastern Conference was tethered to Tatum's continued development, this time on a roster at full strength and unsure of its pecking order. That version of the team met its maker in the second round, falling to the Milwaukee Bucks without so much as a whimper.

This year, Tatum's license knows no restraint or higher-up, sort of like it did during the 2018 postseason, only more so. The Celtics are better off for it, right back on their title-contender fast track despite losing Irving and Al Horford over the offseason.

And while their departures aren't specifically responsible for Boston's success, they did clear the way for Tatum's dual transition: his official entry into stardom and then the almost immediate second leap into All-NBA territory.

Most are still coming to grips with his first jump, the one that seemed inevitable as a rookie but less so as a sophomore. Neither season, in hindsight, was viewed in especially fair terms. There was a rush to coronate in 2018 and then an urgency to relitigate in 2019.

Last year's race to revalue Tatum was more off the mark. Overhyping young players is less disingenuous than claiming they've underdelivered. Tatum is only about to turn 22, and last season's team didn't have the runway to support his accelerated timeline. His sophomore year was at worst a granular step back and more likely a lateral non-development repackaged as regression.

That perception of the 2018-19 Celtics quickly became Tatum's anchor. This season's rise wouldn't be considered a surprise—or something to resist—by so many outside Boston without the weight of last year dragging him down.

The discussion about him has been slow to evolve as a result, some combination of too reserved and plainly lagging. Tatum's All-Star nod earned him a certain validation, but he crossed that threshold long before he was formally recognized for it. His performance since has been absorbed into that conversation rather than inviting a new one, the right one—the All-NBA one.

Boston's uncrowded pecking order has done wonders for Tatum.
Boston's uncrowded pecking order has done wonders for Tatum.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In the 26 games he has played since Christmas, Tatum is averaging 25.5 points, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks on 61.9 true shooting (comfortably above the league average of 56.2). So few can score and defend with his current consistency, and more importantly, as his control over the offense increases, he isn't losing the plug-and-play punch that drove his bandwagon to capacity in 2018.

"Some become stars by not taking anything off the table; they are flexible to position, style and system, which keeps them on the floor and in a position to help their team win," The Ringer's Rob Mahoney wrote. "Others come to stardom by doing the kinds of things that so few can: hitting the most improbable shots, handling the most difficult assignments and shouldering the kind of usage that would make even talented players buckle into inefficiency. Tatum managed to walk both paths at once."

Roughly half of Tatum's made buckets are coming off assists, a career low that isn't actually all that low. He doesn't always go and find the ball; he lets it find him.

He will get out in transition when someone else grabs a rebound and fan out to the corner if he's not running the possession. Catch-and-shoot threes account for a much smaller part of his diet—13.9 percent of his looks compared to 19.1 last year—but he's still putting them down at a 38.1 percent clip.

Not all stars have the ability to complement. Tatum has a knack for it. Having an imbalance of ball-handlers and playmakers might stunt his growth, like last year, but it will never torpedo his fit. His scoring is translatable.

Thinning out the offensive ranks merely optimized Tatum. Losing Horford, Irving, Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier while adding only Kemba Walker has allowed him to branch out. The end result: superstardom.

Tatum is finishing 5.6 pick-and-roll possessions as the ball-handler per game, second on the Celtics and more than double last year's 2.4. His effective field-goal percentage in these situations sits at 57.8, the third-best mark among all players matching or exceeding his volume, trailing only Walker and Chris Paul.

Tatum's off-the-dribble three is now one of the league's deadliest weapons. His escape-dribble, step-back to his left is flat-out unguardable:

Twenty-five players are attempting at least three pull-up triples per game. Tatum's 40.7 percent clip on those looks leads the field. Only eight players have scored more points off unassisted threes, according to PBP Stats, and no high-volume shooter is downing them with better efficiency:

Kirk Goldsberry @kirkgoldsberry

Best Unassisted 3-Point Shooters 2019-20* 1. Jayson Tatum .... 41.5% 2. Damian Lillard ... 40.4% 3. Zach LaVine ...... 39.6% 4. Paul George ...... 39.2% 5. Kyle Lowry ......... 37.5% *min. 100 attempts (33 qualifiers) https://t.co/4ZZbgb7yMH

The level of difficulty on Tatum's looks cannot be overstated. His expected effective field-goal percentage is right in line with that from Luka Doncic (51.0), and he has become the Celtics' go-to option when something needs to be made out of nothing:

Nikola Jokic is the only player who has more conversions inside four seconds of the shot clock. Tatum's accuracy in these situations is unreal. His 56.8 effective field-goal percentage ranks first among 86 players who have burned through at least 50 looks with four seconds or less remaining on the shot clock.

Critiques of his finishing around the rim are now outdated. He still whiffs on the more-than-occasional bunny, but he's upped his volume and efficiency near the basket.

More than 36.4 percent of Tatum's attempts are coming inside five feet since Dec. 15, up from 30.7 percent beforehand. He's shooting 64.6 percent in the restricted area during this stretch, miles above the 52.9 percent with which he began the season.

Tatum is approaching his half-court attacks with more deliberation. His handle on the break remains too high and loosey-goosey, but he's tightened his control in traffic and added more misdirection to his drives. He is much better at maintaining his dribble and waiting out openings and rescreens:

Playmaking is Tatum's next frontier. He has the lowest assist rate for anyone with his usage, and his paths to the basket won't be as obstructed if he passes on more of his drives and proves he can do more than hit the nearest shooter.

Repetition should help Tatum gain some of the feel. His increased pick-and-roll volume will serve him well, and he's flashed the awareness to throw less obvious passes:

Sticklers will continue to harp on dearth of shooting fouls. Of the 20 players with comparable usage, only two—Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Rose—have a lower free-throw-attempt rate.

That is not the end of the world. Tatum lives on the perimeter, and a certain amount of variance needs to be allotted for anyone who works from the outside in. Especially those who are more finesse than force.

And besides, Tatum has shown he can draw contact on the floor. His free-throw frequency should climb as he cuts down on attempted finishes going away from defenders and harsh-angled floaters:

There is even less to nitpick on defense. Those who don't feel his impact in real time aren't watching closely enough.

Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart see more time versus No. 1 options, per Nylon Calculus' Krishna Narsu, and it is Brown who will see the most reps against the bigger wings and rangy 4s. Tatum still has the size (6'8") and length to hang on the power forward spectrum, and he can really get into 2s and 3s:

Defensive tracking data is imperfect, so take this with a grain of salt, but ball-handlers are averaging just 0.67 points per possession against him in the pick-and-roll—the eighth-skimpiest mark among 226 players who have guarded at least 50 of these plays.

Wingspan is Tatum's form of rim protection. He doesn't have to stay in front of the play to bust it up; he will terminate it from behind:

Spending fewer reps on primary ball-handlers allows Tatum to drift. He has parlayed that flexibility into top-notch help defense. 

Teams are shooting far worse from the corners and mid-range when he's on the court. That's not a coincidence. He is tough to lose on screens and even harder fool on downhill attacks. He can bait ball-handlers and use his length to teleport back into passing lanes:

People have naturally gravitated more toward Tatum's performance in recent weeks. He has turned the entire month of February into his personal plaything.

Over his past 11 games, he's averaging 30.5 points and 3.0 assists on 65.7 true shooting, including a 50 percent success rate from downtown. His 39-point detonation during a win over the Los Angeles Clippers heading into the All-Star break gave him a cachet bump. Outplaying Kawhi Leonard in crunch time will have that effect.

Tatum's 41-point explosion in a Feb. 23 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on national TV served a similar purpose. So did his 36-point masterpiece against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 25, in which he shot 8-of-12 from distance. Almost every game he plays these days adds to his legitimacy.

Really, this isn't anything too new. Tatum's impact on the Celtics is a season-long development. Their net rating improves by 11.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, easily tops among all of their rotation players, and a swing that rates in the 96th percentile.

If there is a suddenness to Tatum's rise, it's the consistency with which he's been not just Boston's best player but the best player on the floor, period.

The two-way imprint he's leaving is borderline unparalleled. He places inside the top 25 of real adjusted plus-minus (RAPM) at both ends of the floor, according to NBA Shot Charts; he's 14th in ORAPM and seventh in DRAPM. Leonard and LeBron James are the only other players who rank in the top 25 of both categories.

Tatum has All-NBA credentials right now.
Tatum has All-NBA credentials right now.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Cracking an All-NBA team as a forward can seem impossible most seasons. Even this year, with injuries removing Kevin Durant and Paul George from the equation, the path to a selection is hardly clear. James, Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are shoo-ins. Anthony Davis will take up a fourth spot if the NBA counts him as a power forward.

Two bites at the apple isn't a lot when Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Pascal Siakam, Brandon Ingram and, depending on positional designation, Luka Doncic all remain. For Tatum, though, it is enough.

Whether he actually gets the nod is a different story, and it doesn't particularly matter. Entering the All-NBA discourse at all says just as much about the Celtics' future and the timeline that's always been hitched to him.

Boston is no longer waiting on that cornerstone who can be the best player on a title contender. If he's not quite here already, he's coming—and fast.

        

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersEarly Bird Rights and Spotrac.

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

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