All roads in Boston lead back to 2018, the year that saved the Celtics by breaking them. It was then, in the vacuum created by Kyrie Irving’s knee injury and Gordon Hayward’s leg injury, that the team’s younger contingent found the space to thrive. By the time those two stars returned, the team had materially changed. Every NBA locker room has not just talent, but ambition—a reality that made it impossible to box players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown back into smaller roles after carrying the team to the Eastern Conference finals. One can draw a straight line from that playoff run to the foul chemistry that followed; to Irving’s eventual departure; to the Celtics’ need for reinvention; and, ultimately, to Tatum’s own emerging stardom.
Last weekend marked Tatum’s first All-Star appearance, formalizing his turn from tantalizing prospect to accountable star. Players tend to make this transition by one of two paths. Some become stars by not taking anything off the table; they are flexible to position, style, and system, which keeps them on the floor and in a position to help their team win. Others come to stardom by doing the kinds of things that so few can: hitting the most improbable shots, handling the most difficult assignments, and shouldering the kind of usage that would make even talented players buckle into inefficiency. Tatum managed to walk both paths at once. Often the most important parts of his game are those that would seem to round it out. Defense is central to any explanation of his value. The ease with which he swings between forward positions—at 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan—helps smooth out Boston’s rotation. It’s easy to walk away from a Celtics game impressed by how Tatum created space for a crucial basket. Those are the plays that put contending teams over the top. Often, however, Tatum’s most meaningful work is the sort of full, all-around offerings that give Boston a chance to win in the first place.
There are three 20-point scorers on the Celtics this season: Tatum, Brown, and All-Star guard Kemba Walker. Among them, Tatum might be the most immutable in his contributions, for reasons that have little to do with pure scoring. This has been a banner year for Brown, whose game still toes the line between order and chaos—sometimes edging over it with brassy enthusiasm. A certain unpredictability is part of the appeal. The opposite is true for Walker, whose talent for running clean, turnover-free offense is part of what endeared him to Boston in the first place. The trouble is his size; when trapped by multiple, bigger defenders, the 6-foot Walker can find himself so far underwater it becomes difficult to find the pass out to the open man without a periscope. There is also only so much Walker can do to compete defensively, no matter his effort and understanding. The demands of the job are literally over his head.
Tatum is a bridge between them, well cast as a moderating force. The shot creation, team defense, length, rebounding, and awareness are all there. Walker may initiate the offense, but the ball finds Tatum more often than any other Celtic. Sometimes Tatum functions as a connector—swinging the ball from one action into the next, by positioning himself in a way that relieves pressure on the offense. Other possessions may seek out Tatum in desperation when he has the best chance of getting off a clean shot against encroaching defense. Boston runs a balanced and active offense, but is hardly above isolating Tatum in a position of advantage. In a different set, the Celtics might rely on him largely as a decoy. No matter their needs, Tatum always has some way to provide support without fading entirely into the background.
It’s a delicate art. There are wildly talented players in the league who struggle to modulate; the only way they know how to be involved is to be too involved, and the only way they know how to be deferential is to be too deferential. This was some of the issue for Boston’s overstuffed lineups last season, which had to find room for not just Tatum and Brown alongside Irving, but also Hayward, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier. This season is about simplification. It’s telling that the Celtics could lose half of the aforementioned players and still have one of the deeper teams in the league. Tatum has done his own troubleshooting to make moves that help carry the momentum of the offense forward. Driving off a ball screen rather than a series of jab steps can make all the difference.
Tatum’s continued evolution may be the single most important factor in the team’s championship pursuits. Other Celtics will grow in their own time and add nuance to already effective systems. Winning the East—or the Finals—will take more. In that way, the current shape of Boston’s roster applies its own pressure on Tatum. The team’s clearest way forward is through its most broadly capable player, who is still in the formative years of his basketball career.
While committing to the rhythms of a more balanced offense, Tatum has still found the creative latitude to score more than ever before (22.4 points per game), while using possessions at a rate similar to Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam, and Devin Booker. It’s not quite the auteur approach taken by other, more ball-dominant superstars, but it’s enough. Not every creator is meant for that life. The primary goal for Tatum shouldn’t be to do more, in a Hardenesque sense, but to do more with the opportunities he creates. Of the 25 players selected as All-Stars, Tatum ranks 23rd in true shooting. A few of his tougher drives every game could involve savvier efforts to create contact. Tatum is getting better at reading the floor, but isn’t yet to the point that he’s seeing passes that might be available after the next defensive rotation. There’s so much Tatum could eventually do. What distinguishes him from his peers is balance. Tatum can already defend in a way other young wings can’t, which makes every tough shot he hits a matter of greater consequence. Scoring will always matter more when it comes from players who do things other than score.
As the season rolls on, Tatum is becoming the kind of star who wins slowly, incrementally, with high skill and sustained focus to apply pressure from all directions at once. Playing against the Celtics is never a matter of stopping Tatum from scoring. It’s a test of endurance where at every step, Tatum is somehow involved.