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Jayson Tatum Is Only 21, but He’s Still the Key to Boston’s Future

The encore didn’t go as planned, but Boston needs Tatum to be the player everyone—including Kyrie Irving—expected to realize its ceiling

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Tatum family believes in starting young. When Jayson Tatum was an infant, his father Justin put a mini basketball in his crib. Now that Jayson is a father himself, the second-year Boston Celtics forward is eager to pass on the family business. His son, Jayson Tatum Jr., or Deuce, has accompanied dad to postgame podiums and joined him on the court for practice during All-Star Weekend (Deuce traveled quite a bit and went 0-for-2 from the field in Charlotte, but he’s not even 2 yet).

That All-Star outing was all in good fun, but Tatum’s reaction turned serious when his progeny prematurely celebrated after missing a shot on a mini hoop Tatum had bought him.

“Jayson’s already trying to instill that competitive spirit in him,” says Will Gladson, a longtime Tatum pal and former high school teammate who happens to be Deuce’s godfather. “Deuce shot and missed, and started to clap. Jayson stopped him and said, ‘You don’t get to clap unless you make it.’”

The message matters, even if little Deuce likely isn’t old enough to comprehend it. It’s important to shoot your shot, but it’s only worth celebrating if you make it.

There was a little more than a minute to play in Game 2 in Boston and Indiana led 91-89, the Pacers trying to even the series at a game apiece and steal home-court advantage in the first round. The ball found Tatum on the left wing, in front of the visitors bench, and he launched a 3 for the lead. It clanged off the rim.

For some players, missing a potential go-ahead bucket could have a snowball effect. Focused on the failure, they might slip on defense; given another shot, they might force it no matter the circumstances in an effort to make up for the previous miss. Not Tatum. Given another shot, literally and figuratively, Tatum didn’t miss.

Al Horford blocked Bojan Bogdanovic on the defensive end, and the rebound dropped to Jaylen Brown. Brown pushed it hard upcourt, drove into the lane, and then skipped it to Tatum on the far side for a go-ahead 3.

It was an important sequence, for more than one reason: Brown’s heady play augured his big Game 3 to come in Indy, and Horford’s steady defense would prove key in the eventual sweep. Tatum wasn’t done, either.

With the Celtics looking to ice Game 2 a couple of possessions later, the Pacers keyed on Kyrie Irving, forcing him to give it up to Tatum. And with a chance to play the hero, the 21-year-old made a savvy play. After a season spent launching far too many long 2s—and absorbing slings and arrows hurled in his direction by his point guard, who has a searing thirst to succeed on his own terms and seemingly no time for growing pains by young teammates—that Tatum would make this particular play in crunch time in a playoff game seemed far from a given. He up-faked the 3, ducked into the lane, and instead of launching a contested midrange shot over a closeout he spotted Gordon Hayward cutting baseline and hit him for an easy layup.

Asked on a conference call the next day about Brown’s contribution to that winning sequence, Celtics coach Brad Stevens praised the young swingman’s maturation, citing his struggles early on in the season and noting how he’s persevered. Then he tacked on a few kudos for his other young swingman.

“For Jaylen to make that play was great,” he said. “And then the next play down, Jayson gets a drive, and Jayson’s got a chance to pull up, and he dumps it off. I just thought those were really, really good plays by those two guys late in the game.”

Tatum’s success in his rookie season may have made it seem like the one-and-done from Duke came into the NBA as a final product. Then his sophomore campaign began, his shot selection got worse, his handle remained a work in progress, and his defense stayed inconsistent.

So yes, he dunked on LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, then let him know about it with a chest bump. (This season, delightfully, he told The New York Times’ Sopan Deb “I’ve got a big-ass picture of it in my house.”) And yes, he worked out with Kobe Bryant before this season, fulfilling another life goal—and, perhaps, raising fear among protective Celtics fans.

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But Tatum’s critics would be wise to consider his prescience to this point. At 21, he’s already upped his season averages in scoring (13.9 in 2017-18 to 15.7 in 2018-19), rebounds (5.0 to 6.0), assists (1.6 to 2.1), and steals (1.0 to 1.1) while at once commanding a larger share of his team’s offense and opponents’ attention in 2018-19. And he’s started 23 playoff games, averaging 18.6 points and shooting 36 percent from 3 in them. He scored 26 in Game 2 against Indiana, two off his playoff career high set last season against Philly, and shot 50 percent from distance. When it’s really mattered, the player we expect Tatum to be has shown up.

The St. Louis native may have been perusing a page from the Moreyball playbook in the first round, with three-quarters of his attempts coming from either the paint or from 3-point range. That’s an encouraging sign given his tendencies in the regular season. Though Tatum increased his shots at the basket, he too often settled for jumpers, taking 26.6 percent of his attempts from midrange in Year 2 and shooting just 36.6 percent on them, a drop from 43.7 percent as a rookie. His rate of 3-pointers attempted was up, too; he just didn’t hit them (37.3 percent) as well as he did as a rookie, when he shot 43.4 percent. His shot selection from deep also likely played a role, as he took more pull-up 3s this season even though he’s better at catch-and-shoot 3s.

Tatum’s 3-point Attempts by Play Type

Year 2PA % 3PA % Catch and Shoot Freq. Catch and Shoot 3PT % Pull-up Freq. Pull-up 3PT %
Year 2PA % 3PA % Catch and Shoot Freq. Catch and Shoot 3PT % Pull-up Freq. Pull-up 3PT %
2017-18 68.8 31.2 23.5 48 7.8 31
2018-19 69.9 30.1 19.1 39.4 10.7 32.4

At times this season, Tatum must have felt pulled in opposite directions. On the one hand, there’s the natural desire to try to replicate his excellent rookie year. On the other, there are the changing demands of a roster in transition. Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury minutes into the 2017-18 season drastically altered the course of Tatum’s debut season, freeing up minutes and shots for the no. 3 overall pick. Then Irving’s season-ending knee surgeries pushed Terry Rozier into the starting lineup for the playoffs, and slid more of the scoring burden onto both the backup point guard and the rookie small forward. Tatum flourished in the postseason spotlight, averaging 18.5 points per game—including dropping 20 in Game 7 of the first round to knock out the Bucks—and seemingly establishing himself as a big part of the Celtics’ future.

Then Irving and Hayward came back, and by necessity everything had to change. Irving thrives with the ball in his hands and wants to win now, and Hayward is a former All-Star on a max contract who desperately wanted to reestablish himself after the gruesome injury that ended his first season in Boston. So Tatum had to simultaneously complement Irving with his shooting and secondary playmaking, cede touches to the recuperating Hayward, and attempt to realize the star-in-the-making promise he’d demonstrated the year before.

Considering all that, that Tatum’s managed to take steps forward in key parts of his game is commendable. But the general push-pull he’s dealt with all season hasn’t gone away in the postseason, and how he manages it against the Bucks will go a long way toward determining the Celtics’ ceiling.

Penny Hardaway never took it easy on Tatum. The former Orlando Magic star and current head coach at the University of Memphis has known Tatum since the Celtics swingman was in the eighth grade, when one of Hardaway’s good friends started dating Tatum’s mom, Brandy Cole. Before Tatum left for Duke, the two would occasionally play one-on-one. Though the games were friendly, the former pro wouldn’t hold back. “I own that record,” Hardaway says with a laugh, referring to his winning percentage against the Celtics guard.

In the intervening years, he’s been happy to share the hard-won wisdom gained from his 14-year NBA career with Tatum—though he’s quick to note that Tatum wasn’t exactly knocking down his door to pick his brain.

“To always work hard, to always play with an attitude, [to] keep those personal chips on his shoulder,” Hardaway says he told Tatum. “Because he didn’t come from a silver spoon. He had to work. His mom had to work her butt off. His dad had to work his butt off. His grandparents had to work their butts off.

“So keep that in mind. Don’t ever feel entitled.”

To listen to those who know Tatum well, that doesn’t appear to be a problem. Gladson says it wasn’t unusual for Tatum to hit the gym at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis an hour, an hour and a half, or two hours before everyone else, getting extra work in with Drew Hanlen, an athletic trainer who now works with several NBA players. Hardaway says he’s been impressed by Tatum’s work ethic and ability to turn weaknesses into strengths.

“I’ve seen his jump shot get better,” he says. “One of the knocks on him was he wasn’t a great jump shooter, he wasn’t going to be able to shoot the 3. He proved people wrong. Anything that you told Jayson that he couldn’t do, he was gonna prove you wrong.”

After he helped lead the Celtics, minus the injured Irving and Hayward, to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals last season, there weren’t many people telling Tatum what he couldn’t do. The sky seemed like the limit, and fans in Philly and L.A. were flummoxed by their favorite franchises’ decisions to pass on the former Blue Devil in the draft.

But adjusting to fatherhood is just one way things have changed for Tatum in the past year-plus. He’s a year older—lest you forget after all those breathless He’s only 19! and He’s only 20! mentions. He’s declared his intention to not touch his Celtics salary and instead live off of endorsement dollars, which he’s pulling in from such big-name brands as Gatorade, Nike, and New Era. (“I’ve been watching Jayson play basketball my whole life, so I knew that was coming,” Gladson says. “But seeing him in ads for Gatorade ... I haven’t quite gotten used to that yet.”) He’s heard his name floated repeatedly in trade rumors (and handled the experience with apparent good humor). He’s been marked for superstardom as a rookie and then marked as a disappointment when his sophomore season didn’t live up to the hype.

The latter is something this entire Celtics team knows more about than it’d care to. In a conference call after Game 2, Stevens admitted this season was “Not what we had hoped. Not what the outside had hoped.” But, he said cheerfully, the playoffs offer a chance for a reset.

To beat this Milwaukee Bucks team, Stevens will need Kyrie to be his playoff self, Horford to remain quietly ultracompetent, and someone to at least get in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s way once in a while (Semi Ojeleye was the muscled-up sacrificial ram last season). And they’ll need Tatum to take another step forward.

“His ceiling is extremely high,” Hardaway says. “He’ll always have another level. You’ll think that’s all he has to give, and then all of a sudden he’ll go off for five or six or seven buckets in a row. He has that ability.”

Hardaway should know; he’s seen that ability up close and personal. During a trip to Memphis in September, Tatum made a point to show him.

“He definitely called me out as soon as he got into the gym,” he says. “Like, ‘I want my rematch.’ That’s just how he is, though.”

Asked how the seemingly mild-mannered Tatum handled himself while handing Hardaway his comeuppance, the old pro laughed.

“He was like ‘I’m not little anymore, it’s my turn now.’”