It’s a bit sad to think about the slim championship hopes of LeBron James in 2018. Instead, let’s focus on something positive coming from the Eastern Conference Finals: the stellar play of former Duke star Jayson Tatum.
After a sensational rookie season, Tatum continues to deliver in the playoffs. Tatum, who just turned 20 two months ago, hasn’t shied away on the big stage — averaging over 18 points per game, and helping Boston get to within two wins of a Finals trip.
Let’s take a quick look back at how we got to this point.
For most of his rookie season, Jayson Tatum was tasked with filling a mostly straightforward role in Boston’s motion offense. Space to the weak-side of the floor, around the central action of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford; when the ball get swung, shoot or attack.
The role suited Tatum, who excelled as a powerful secondary option. As I wrote last November: When he was open, Tatum let it rip from deep; for the season, Tatum shot a sizzling 48 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers.
However, if and when defenses closed out hard, Tatum showed immense poise and skill, even early on. Quickly, Tatum became an excellent closeout-beater — letting defenders fly by as he slithered past them for looks at the rim.
Roughly 65 percent of Tatum’s field goal attempts this season were either at the rim or 3-pointers, per Cleaning The Glass. Boston found additional ways to get him going to the basket, like screen-roll action with Kyrie Irving.
With Kyrie Irving on the mend, Boston is without it’s primary ball handler and creator in the playoffs. During the regular season, Irving led the Celtics in touches per game (76.1) and time of possession (6.1 minutes). In his absence, though, other players have been asked to step up as primary creators.
Scary Terry Rozier has snagged most of the headlines, and deservingly so — he’s been awesome. Of course, Al Horford is freakishly good at always making the right read from his small-ball center position. It’s not just those two: Tatum is flashing new developments to his game, too.
In the regular season, over 73 percent of Jayson Tatum’s field goal attempts came after two or fewer dribbles; nearly 45 percent of his field goal attempts came after touching the ball for under two seconds, per Second Spectrum.
Through the first three rounds of the playoffs, 59.9 percent of Tatum’s field goal attempts have come after two or fewer dribbles, and only 30 percent of his field goal attempts are after a touch time of under two seconds.
Pressure can either bust pipes or create a diamond. In the madhouse of the NBA playoffs, Tatum goes a step further each game in his development as an offensive fulcrum. Boston looks for ways to get Tatum angles to the basket — running the rookie off pindowns, or putting him into two-man action the ineffable Horford.
Tatum averaged 42.7 touches per game as a rookie, and possessed that ball for 1.8 minutes per game. In the playoffs, those two numbers have jumped to 56 touches and 2.8 minutes, in terms of time of possession.
And while Tatum’s usage rate has climbed to nearly 24 percent in the playoffs, he still has a sub-12 percent turnover rate.
Tatum, The Creator
The 2017 ACC Tournament up in Brooklyn served as a quasi coming out party for Jayson Tatum. Unless you’re an ACC junkie or a card-carrying member of NBA Draft Twitter, you may not have caught a lot of Tatum in action.
Over a four-game stretch, Tatum averaged 22 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists while playing over 38 minutes per game. He was wildly impressive, start to finish; however, when I think back to that performance, one play always stands out. In the second half of a close game with Clemson, Tatum caught the ball on a re-post, drew a double team and slipped a gorgeous no-look pass to a cutting Matt Jones.
I sat baseline underneath the basket when this play happened; it was right in front of me. Immediately, you could see it: Tatum had legit vision and playmaking chops.
A few weeks back, I wrote about this over at ACCSports: Tatum, who averaged just 2.6 assists per 100 possessions this season, is starting to showcase a primary creator gene that should have everyone in the Eastern Conference worried.
Tatum has assisted on nearly 15 percent of his teammates field goals while on the floor in the postseason, which is up from 8.3 percent in the regular season — 4.5 per 100 possessions.
This is a simple action Boston started to run during the season: Horford sets a little brush screen for Tatum, who looks to attack, or run pick-and-roll. The two-man action between Tatum and Horford has been critical for the Celtics.
Horford is shooting over 71 percent on two-point attempts after a pass from Tatum in the playoffs. But, I mean, some of these passes: wow.
As the basketball community has swooned over the genius of Brad Stevens, the Celtics egalitarian motion offense has drawn praise, too. Boston spreads the floor, moves the ball side-to-side (305.4 passes per game in the playoffs), creates some advantage, put the defense in rotation, and then attacks. Or, at least, that’s the preferred operating procedure.
Boston also has the ability to go one-on-one and play match-up basketball. One of the reasons the Celtics give opposing defenses fits: just about player in Boston’s rotation can post-up or shoot from deep
With Kyrie testing out flat Earth theories on the bench, Jayson Tatum takes on a more central role in this department.
During his one season at Duke, we saw Tatum flash a brilliant mid-post game. In fact, Tatum shot 64 percent and scored 1.3 points per possession on post-ups in college — No. 3 in the nation (minimum 30 possessions), per Synergy Sports.
In this year’s playoffs, Tatum is more or less doing the same thing, but now he’s flashing a funky post-up game against world class defenders. According to Second Spectrum, Tatum is shooting 63.6 percent on post-ups this postseason, and scoring 1.43 points per possession.
Like A Glove
The day after Boston selected Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 pick in the the 2017 NBA Draft, Danny Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations, mentioned that the team would’ve taken Tatum No. 1 overall.
Boston, of course, had the No. 1 pick, but flipped picks with Philadelphia for the third selection and a future first. As Boston vanquished Philadelphia in the second round of the playoffs, it was a bit awkward to watch as Tatum helped dice up the Sixers — while the actual top pick, Markelle Fultz, remained glued to the bench. It did, however, further drive home an important point about fit.
Hypothetically, Philadelphia — another well-coached team on the rise — would’ve been an excellent landing spot for Tatum, too. Boston is perfect, though.
The switchy defense scheme of the Celtics is perfect for Tatum, who has the length and post presence to defend multiple positions. He gets to work for Ainge and Stevens under the umbrella of one of North America’s top sports organizations. Tatum is already an awesome NBA player, but he will have every opportunity possible to learn and grow and improve; it’s a bit scary to think about what this dude could look like in five years.
The Rarest Of Rare
Regardless of what happens from here on out, a wacky NBA offseason is on the horizon; LeBron James is set to hit free agency. The short-term power balance of the league could be altered. Once again, Boston has the potential to be a serious player in the trade market, and several big names could be had — possibly. If Boston’s aggressive, I’m sure teams will ask for Tatum as a return.
Um, good luck.
Right now, Tatum is in the process of turning into a star that also happens to be perfectly suited for where the game is going. With three full years left on his rookie deal, and rights going forward, Tatum may just be the best asset Boston possesses.
Welcome to the future: We arrived ahead of schedule.