We are now a month into an amazingly entertaining NBA season. One of the best storylines to emerge is what’s taken place up in Boston.
The Celtics dropped two straight games to open the season, and lost prized free agent wing Gordon Hayward for the season to a gruesome injury. It would’ve been super easy to throw in the towel. A disaster appeared on the horizon; why not let the current drag you in?
Well, behind the excellent coaching of Brad Stevens, Boston has run in the opposite direction. Screw despair; this team is awesome. The Celtics have weaponized a roster full of switchy long-armed wings on the rest of the league.
Boston currently leads the NBA in defense — 95.4 points per 100 possessions — and rebounds the hell out of the basketball. The Celtics allow just 5.4 percent of opponent field goal attempts to come from the corner — third best in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass. Opponents shoot 59.3 percent in the restricted area against Boston, and 36.2 percent in the midrange — both top five numbers in the league.
Kyrie Irving’s wizardry is on full display; the two-way play of Al Horford has been brilliant — better than ever before, actually. Another critical development for Boston: Jayson Tatum is here, ready to play and afraid of nothing. Also, he’s really good, too.
At some point in Jayson Tatum’s career, he will be tasked with carrying an offense. You can just see it in him — this dude will average 20-plus points at some point down the line. With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward in the fold, that may be a while from now; until then, though, Tatum is perfectly fine to chill on the wing, and wreck shop when asked.
As I detailed in last week’s St8 of the NBA, Tatum is on pace for a historic rookie season — far rosier than the two guards selected above him. Tatum plays with confidence and flow; he lets the game come to him. However, when needed to attack, the former Duke Blue Devil is super decisive.
This play essentially sealed the game on Sunday against Toronto. Terry Rozier draws two defenders and kicks to the rookie. Tatum uses a little shoulder hesitation move to catch Kyle Lowry leaning, then hits him with the blow-by, and watch that outstretched finish at the cup.
This a great weak-side option to have space around the loopy two-man action with Kyrie and Al Horford. Tatum is one of only five players in the NBA averaging at least 13 points on fewer than 10 field goal attempts per game and a usage rate under 20 percent.
Boston has occupied a unique space in the NBA the past few years — the franchise could contend and still build through the draft with high picks, thanks to the Nets. A downstream benefit of that: Tatum doesn’t have to break into the league as a high-usage chucker on a 31-win team. Instead, he gets coached by Stevens, and plays alongside two All-Stars. That’s not how things usually work out.
You can’t stop everything
The super-smooth Tatum, who vacillates between both forward positions in Boston spacey offense, is selective in how he chooses to attack. Like an artist that paints with only his or her favorite brushes, Tatum picks his spots wisely.
Leave this dude open, let him get a clean look at the basket, and he’s drilling a three-pointer. The rookie shoots nearly 48 percent on threes, but he’s even more precise off the catch. Tatum is 18-of-32 on catch-and-shoot triples this season — 56.3 percent, No. 2 in the NBA.
According to Cleaning The Glass, nine percent of Tatum’s field goal attempts are corner threes. Tatum has drilled 62 percent of his corner treys and 44 percent of his above the break threes. Defenders now know this, and must closeout hard. When that happens, Tatum kicks the other part of his game into gear: the blow-by.
It’s like the football offense that can run and pass — put eight defenders in the box, they throw the fade into single coverage; keep both safeties back, and they run it right at you. It may not work for big yards every single time, but either way, the math is always in their favor.
That’s essentially the paradigm on half-court offense right now for Tatum. It’s a catch-and-shoot three-pointer, or he’s attacking on a straight line off the bounce.
It’s more than just scoring
A big part of Boston’s success has been its ability to clear defensive rebounds; Tatum has had an impact here, too. The rookie has a defensive rebounding rate of nearly 17 percent, and all of the tools were on display against Toronto.
What’s Next for Jayson Tatum?
At some point this season, Tatum’s three-point shooting will cool off some. It’s highly unlikely he continues to make three out of every five catch-and-shoot opportunities. However, it’s just fine if he settles in at the low 40s.
If and when things bog down in the half-court, Boston should find ways to get Tatum out on the break. He’s shooting 67 percent in transition this season, and scoring 1.24 points per prepossession — a top-20 number in the NBA.
Tatum does need to work on his ability to finish at the rim, though — a concern of some scouts leading up to this June’s draft. This was an area that Tatum had issues in at Duke, which has carried over to his time with the Celtics — he’s shooting only 52 percent inside of four feet.
This of course comes with an important caveat: Jayson Tatum is still just 19 years old. He will get stronger and more explosive, and those attempts at the rim should fall more frequently as his career progresses.