If you missed Thursday night’s double-OT thriller between the Celtics and Clippers, you missed an MVP level performance. This MVP-level statement game wasn’t by Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, or even Kemba Walker, but by 2017’s 3rd overall pick, Jayson Tatum. It’s hard not to be bullish after the 21-year-old dropped 39 points and nine rebounds against arguably the best team in the West. A year ago, Tatum, couldn’t legally buy a beer and now he is NBA Jam dunking on people.
I know. I know. Don’t roll your eyes. I know NBA talking heads always make claims of a player “reaching another level.” Seriously, what does that phrase even mean? If you had been watching the Celtics this season, you would know that this isn’t a one-game fluke. Tatum has been on the rise and last night was the pinnacle. Don’t believe me? Look at some of his needed growth areas in 2017 draft guides.
Here are the Ringer’s minuses for drafting Tatum in 2017:
- “Lacks defensive mentality. Loses focus off-ball, dies on screens. He has the ability but doesn’t play with much effort or NBA-level physicality.”
- “Lacks defensive versatility. Flat-footed on the perimeter; gets toasted by guards. Thin in the waist, so gets overpowered by bigs.”
- “Needs to score to produce. He’s a willing passer but lacks vision off the dribble.”
- “Not a natural shooter, with rigid mechanics. Gets to his shot pocket early and heaves the ball. Struggles off the dribble from 3-point range.”
- “Lives in midrange. Settles for pull-ups and floaters. If his 3-pointer doesn’t translate, is he a player modern teams can build around?”
It’s hard to believe this was said only three years ago. Watch his highlights from last night and compare them to the above list. What jumps out is Tatum’s explosive growth in these areas:
The Celtics were the perfect landing spot for Tatum. Tatum needed to grow as a defender, and Brad Stevens and Marcus Smart were ready to lead him in a clinic. Coach Stevens recently had high praise for Tatum’s growth as a defender. The once-supposed defensive liability has turned into an asset. Last night is a great example. Up against Kawhi Leonard, Tatum held Leonard to 4-12 shooting on 24 possessions. With the game on the line, Tatum hounded Leonard forcing a tough contested shot.
Shot Selection & Scoring
Since his time at Duke, scouts praised Tatum for his ability to use footwork and his long frame which he uses to attempt tough fadeaways. Many times, it can result in Kobe-like highlights that seem impossible to defend. But the reality is NBA teams are going to allow Tatum to take these tough shots all game.
This type of offense does not translate well into the modern NBA. It slows down the pace-and-space style, and teams are happy to give up a tough two instead of an open three. As of last year, it wasn’t even all that effective for Tatum, shooting only 22% from the left elbow. Instead of settling for these tough twos, Tatum is getting to the rim or creating space outside of the arc. Tatum’s sidestep three is becoming a familiar sight.
In the last 14 games Tatum is shooting a blistering 44.5% from 3 and averaging over 26 points per game. Tatum’s recent rise has caught the attention of former Celtic’s coach Doc Rivers. Doc is glad Tatum is in the East. As a Celtics fan, so am I. If you aren’t on the Tatum hype train yet, it’s time to hop on, ticket prices are only going to rise.