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The Young Celtics Are Stepping Up

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are exceeding expectations and giving Boston a chance to compete even without Gordon Hayward

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Born out of necessity, the youth revolution of the Boston Celtics looks to have arrived a few years ahead of schedule. And yes, in case you were wondering, it is being televised.

In Tuesday night’s Celtics-Knicks matchup, both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown made Danny Ainge look good while making themselves look even better (keep in mind, though, that this was against the Knicks). The duo combined for 45 points and a plus-21 while they were on the floor to lead the Celtics to a 21-point win.

“We’re in a situation right now where we’re going to expect a lot out of those guys,” head coach Brad Stevens said after Tuesday’s game. “We need them to be great.”

So far, the two have both averaged the same number of minutes per game: 34.3. For a rookie and a sophomore who are 19 and 21, respectively, that amount of court time is typically unheard of. Earlier this year, and throughout the offseason, Boston was playing with both the present and the future in mind. But after Gordon Hayward’s likely season-ending injury, the Celtics needed to make their future become their present. Somehow, so far, they’ve managed to do so.

Of the Celtics who have played at least 15 minutes in each of Boston’s first four games, only Kyrie Irving has a higher usage rate than Brown and Tatum. Both are shooting well from 3 (36.4 percent for Brown, 45.5 percent for Tatum) and from the field (an uncanny 47.6 percent for both). Tatum, specifically, has already begun to show his value on the boards, where he has the team’s second-best offensive rebounding rate among qualifying players behind big man Aron Baynes.

While Tatum’s biggest appeal is the polished offensive game that he has already shown off in the midrange, Brown has made large strides this season by showing the ability to develop his offensive game and naturally defend all five positions.

“A lot of people look at their offensive stuff,” Al Horford said. “But just defensively with their activity, being in the right positions every time, scrambling on defense—Tatum did that time and time again, and so did Jaylen. It was nice to see them have some success on offense, but defensively, I think that’s where I’m focused with them.”

This youthful burst of production may not be what Kyrie Irving signed up for, but it’s suddenly what he needs most. With Hayward likely out for the season, the growth and improvement of Jay & Jay (that’s what I’m calling them) may be the essential ingredient that makes the Celtics’ pot stir a little smoother than expected without Hayward in play.

“They’re coming out ready to play and they’re demanding a lot of themselves, which I really appreciate,” Irving said postgame Tuesday.

Tatum and Brown aren’t just promising because of their production. Their highlight reels are already filling up, too, forcing a way-too-premature revisionist history on the most recent two drafts. Most of all, they’re a blast to watch and are making the Celtics fun. Against the Knicks, Tatum levitated toward the rim after a missed Baynes shot and put it back with a ferocity that sent Kristaps Porzingis out of loop.

Brown, meanwhile, decided to turn the game into his own slam dunk showcase with this breakaway.

“They’re young guys, but right now in our situation we just need them to be guys,” Stevens said of the duo.

There’s no way Stevens and the Celtics could have foreseen these increased roles for a guy who can’t legally buy a drink and another who is still being asked for his ID. But if there’s credit to be given for preparation (and luck), the Celtics at least put themselves in place to have players who could contribute heavily right away. The young pair will undoubtedly have their culture-shock moment sooner or later, but in order for Boston to stay relevant and competitive in the LeBron-owned East, they’re going to need Tatum and Brown to continue to be as good as advertised, and then some.