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Jayson Tatum Is Up to the Challenge

Tatum has officially taken The Leap, but the young Celtic’s fast rise to stardom wasn’t without its setbacks. Those close to Boston’s new leading man—family and coaches; Danny Ainge and Bradley Beal—detail how he overcame adversity every step of the way, and how his drive to carry on Kobe Bryant’s legacy goes far beyond that purple armband.

Jarvis Kim/Getty Images

Jayson Tatum’s palms are sweating. It’s July 2018 and he’s in Newport Beach, California, at a meeting with the man who was once on posters hanging in his childhood bedroom in St. Louis, Missouri. Tatum is far from home now, and what’s happening feels far from reality. “Oh, shit. I’m really sitting down, really talking with my idol,” Tatum thinks to himself. Across the table is Kobe Bryant, who invited Tatum to meet at his office and work out at the gym the next day. It’s all too overwhelming, and the Black Mamba senses Tatum is anxious. “What’s up, Jayson? Don’t be nervous,” Bryant tells him. “Let’s just talk.”

And so they did. For hours. Bryant told Tatum how he dealt with the pressures of being a teenager in the NBA, taught him ways to prepare mentally for games, and discussed how he made the most of his 20-year Hall of Fame career with the Los Angeles Lakers. “Don’t wait for a perfect situation—make the situation,” Kobe said. “Don’t wait for someone to hand it to you. Don’t let anybody stop you from being great. No matter your situation, no matter how old you are, be that guy.”

A year and a half later, Tatum is becoming that guy. In his third season with the Boston Celtics, Tatum, who turns 22 on Tuesday, was named to his first All-Star team and is averaging 24 points, seven rebounds, and three assists while playing like an All-Defensive Team candidate. Over 12 games in February, Tatum averaged 31 points with a 64 true shooting percentage—making him only the fifth player in Celtics history to average more than 30 points in a month. One of his best nights during that stretch came against the Lakers, when he tied a career high with 41 points; from that game on, Tatum has worn a purple armband during games as a tribute to Kobe, who was one of nine people who died in a helicopter crash on January 26 in the Los Angeles area.

Bryant’s death shook Tatum. When the news broke, he was spending time with his dad, Justin Tatum, in New Orleans before the Celtics’ team bus was scheduled to leave for the arena. “We were in our jolly moment, sitting there munching on our Popeyes sandwiches, talking about things back home,” Tatum’s father recalled. Then Jayson checked his phone notifications and his jaw dropped. No words were spoken for the rest of their meal or walk home to the hotel. “I kind of got sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it,” Tatum said. “It didn’t seem real at the time. It still doesn’t seem real.”

Tatum feels fortunate to have worked out with Kobe two summers ago, but his dream was bigger than simply meeting his idol. When he was in first or second grade, Tatum told his mom, “I want to be like Kobe.” His mother, Brandy Cole-Barnes, responded: “Oh, so you want to play basketball?” “No,” Tatum said. “I want to be Kobe.” Cole-Barnes went one step further. “You shouldn’t want to be Kobe. You should want to be better than Kobe,” Cole-Barnes recalled. “Jayson looked at me like I was growing a unicorn horn on my head. He was like, ‘Better than Kobe? You clearly don’t know who Kobe is.’ He was young, but I wanted him to know you don’t want to be another person. He left the conversation still adamant, ‘No, I want to be Kobe.’”

He wanted to be like the heroes he saw around him, too—Penny Hardaway, a family friend who made an impact off the court in his hometown of Memphis; Bradley Beal, a high-achieving student and player in high school in St. Louis; and especially his mom, who worked hard to make ends meet and sacrificed her own sports dream in order to raise her son.

Tatum has faced challenges at every step of his basketball journey—growing up as a scrawny kid in St. Louis; overcoming an injury at Duke before he ever played a game for the Blue Devils; struggling to follow up his incredible rookie season in Boston. But the work ethic he learned early on and carried with him has led him to where he is today: on the verge of superstardom for a Celtics team that will go as far as he can take them this postseason.

Houston Rockets v Boston Celtics
Jayson Tatum makes a pass around Robert Covington during a game against the Rockets
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Cole-Barnes was a 19-year-old college freshman when she gave birth to Tatum. With Tatum’s dad playing professional basketball in the Netherlands, Cole-Barnes raised Jayson for much of his youth with help from her own mom and godsister. Cole-Barnes was a highly recruited athlete herself, but she had to pass on offers to play volleyball at Division I and II schools in order to save money to afford day care and raise her son closer to home. She attended the University of Missouri–St. Louis and later graduated from law school, often bringing Jayson to class with her until he was 8 years old. She rose early to take care of errands. She stayed up late to take care of her homework. She is “a supermom,” Jayson says.

“I didn’t have a savings account until Jayson went to the league. We were in survival mode,” Cole-Barnes said. When Tatum was in elementary school, she brought him home from school one day and saw a notice of foreclosure on the front door. “We just figured it out,” she said. She had to borrow against 401(k)s, take out loans, and make difficult financial choices to avoid catastrophe.

No matter what challenges their family faced, Tatum kept working on his craft, waking up early to shoot before school and staying up until the neighbors would start complaining about the sound of a bouncing ball. “I start scratching my head thinking this kid might have something going on,” thought Justin Tatum, who returned from overseas in 2006. Cole-Barnes saw it, too, so she connected with a family friend, the son of Brandy’s volleyball coach when she was in high school. That friend was Beal, who had just won high school National Player of the Year while attending Jayson’s high school, Chaminade College Preparatory School, and was on his way to the University of Florida. Beal put them in touch with his trainer, Drew Hanlen. At first, Hanlen resisted countless requests from Cole-Barnes to train Tatum, who was 13 at the time. She called Beal to urge Hanlen to take her son on, and eventually Hanlen gave him one chance: If Tatum got through the first workout, they’d train together.

Days later, Hanlen and Tatum were in the gym for an early-morning workout. They went for about 35 minutes before Tatum couldn’t go any longer. Cole-Barnes remembers Jayson saying he was on the verge of passing out. “You almost killed my baby,” Hanlen recalls Cole-Barnes saying to him on the phone afterward. “But Jayson said, ‘Mama, they were going to have to drag me off the court before I was going to quit.’” Hanlen took him on as a client. They spent 90 minutes a day for one week straight focusing only on jab steps inspired by stars like Kobe, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, and Carmelo Anthony.

It was hard work for a young Tatum, but hard work is all Tatum knew from his mom. She set high standards for herself, and for her son. Cole-Barnes wouldn’t let Tatum play basketball unless he got good grades in school. “No C’s” was the mantra; the one time Tatum did get a C, he found out she was serious when she pulled him from playing in a tournament. “It helps [to be challenged],” Tatum says now.

Not much has changed. After Tatum was named an All-Star, Cole-Barnes pressured her son to advance from a second-tier All-Star (someone who worries about whether they’ll be voted in) to a first-tier All-Star (someone who doesn’t worry about it because they know it). “You shouldn’t be sitting around here anxiously wondering if you’ll be named an All-Star reserve,” Cole-Barnes said she told her son. “Remember this feeling next year, and everyone will know you’re an All-Star so you won’t be sitting there with your fingers crossed hoping you’ll be one.”

Before his freshman season at Duke, Tatum injured his foot, which knocked him out for all of training camp and eight games. Once he returned, he struggled to move laterally on defense and couldn’t find a rhythm offensively. “The times that he struggled, you could see his character,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer told me. “Never once did he make an excuse after a game. Never once did he complain. It was always, ‘What can I do better?’”

Then came the turning point. Trailing by four on the road against Virginia, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski got under Tatum’s skin. “Stop playing like a soft-ass St. Louis kid,” Krzyzewski shouted at Tatum during halftime, Scheyer recalled. In the second half, Tatum scored 21 of his 28 points and dominated on defense, and Duke won by 10. “Watching him battle through adversity at Duke with the injury, and just finding his way there, then becoming the best player in the ACC tournament,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge told me, “is a part of why we felt comfortable with him.”

Tatum first caught Ainge’s eye one year prior at the Nike Hoop Summit, an annual showcase of the best high school players from around the world. Ainge also fancied Markelle Fultz at the same event, and in the 2017 draft, he’d get his choice between the two. Boston, which owned the no. 1 selection thanks to the Brooklyn Nets, dug deep for intel to ensure it was making the right decision. “Everybody says the right things in draft interviews,” Ainge said. “I knew what Jayson wanted, but I didn’t know to what extent he would go to become great. Every player wants to be great, but not all of them are willing to do what it takes.”

The Celtics asked around about each player—whether they enjoyed getting extra work in the gym, how they interacted with teammates, how they’d react if they weren’t getting the ball, and how they’d respond to challenges. The Celtics heard about Coach K ripping into Tatum; how Tatum was in the gym at 6 a.m. every morning, even as a teenager; how Tatum’s family was supportive every step of the way in helping him pursue a sport he truly loved. Intel on Fultz was mixed—he was considered immature and didn’t have a strong support system like Tatum. Fultz shot poorly in his second workout with the Celtics, and Ainge began exploring trades to move down—league sources said Boston hoped to acquire a pick a few spots lower than no. 1 and gather other assets to flip in a separate trade for Paul George, who was dealt later that summer to the Thunder.

The Celtics watched Tatum work out for a second time, and he shined, hitting nearly 90 percent of his shots off the catch from 3 and off the dribble from all over the floor. Whether they moved down or not, the Celtics were targeting Tatum. “You saw the change of heart,” said one league source familiar with Tatum’s second and final workout with Boston. “Danny was like ‘OK, we’re getting this kid,’ and a few days later they made the trade.” The trade sent the first pick to the 76ers (who selected Fultz) for the third pick, where the Celtics selected Tatum, and a future first.

“We just felt that Jayson had a chance to be a very, very good player that would fit well into our culture,” Ainge said. He wouldn’t comment on Fultz, but went on to praise Tatum. “What I love about Jayson is he is driven to become great. You can work on all sorts of technical things, but if a player doesn’t have that mental edge to become great—to have that determination of figuring out the things that you aren’t doing well—it’s not going to happen. And you know, Jayson has really high expectations of himself and really high goals for his life in basketball, and that’s what I appreciate the most.”

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz
Tatum dribbles up the court during a game against Utah
Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Ainge had one chief concern about Tatum heading into the draft: Could he ever become a great defender? Tatum was inconsistent on defense at Duke, partially because of the injury, and partially because he was just so skinny. “The Celtics have been harping on me about it ever since I got to the NBA,” Tatum said. Last summer, Celtics assistant coach Jay Larrañaga sent Tatum a list of 20 stars from the past and present who were named to an All-Defensive Team during their first five seasons—players like Kobe, Scottie Pippen, and Kawhi Leonard. The point? Many all-timers were great defenders before they blossomed offensively. Tatum’s idol was a prime example. In the 1999-2000 season, when Bryant was 21, he averaged over 20 points (22.5) for the first of 15 times and was named to an All-Defensive Team for the first of 12 times.

Pippen was Larrañaga’s favorite comparison for Tatum because of his “length and intelligence.” Tatum didn’t believe Larrañaga at first, but then others started making similar comparisons. During last summer’s Team USA practices, Gregg Popovich told Tatum he could be an elite two-way player like Kawhi or Paul George. Larrañaga joked to him, “I said it to you three years ago, you didn’t believe it. But now that Gregg Popovich [says you can be like Kawhi], now all the sudden you believe it.” But it is different hearing it from a five-time champion. “I love Pop,” Tatum said. “That meant a lot coming from him.”

Tatum has made a leap defensively this season. He’s become a nuisance for opponents off the ball, averaging 2.8 deflections, 1.3 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game, per NBA Advanced Stats—making him one of three wings or forwards with those averages (Houston’s Robert Covington and Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac are the others). He wreaks havoc by jumping passing lanes like in the clip below. As Joel Embiid rolls to the basket, Tatum is in perfect position to prevent the entry pass.

“Jayson is observant,” Larrañaga said. “There doesn’t need to be a lot of words spoken.”

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has utilized Tatum as a stopper at multiple positions. Most recently, Tatum spent long stretches against CJ McCollum, Anthony Davis, Donovan Mitchell, and James Harden. It’s not often that a team’s best offensive threat also defends one of the opponent’s best players, but the Celtics are comfortable with Tatum against anyone. In the clip below, he battles with Davis on a post-up and then strips the ball.

Tatum is tough enough and long enough to defend bigs like Davis, though he’s at his best against fellow wings and forwards.

In the clip above, he mirrors Kawhi to contain his drive and then contests him hard using his long, 6-foot-11 wingspan. The Celtics trailed by three at the time, but ended up winning because of Tatum’s defense on Leonard down the stretch. Among wings and forwards, Tatum ranks second in the NBA behind only P.J. Tucker in deterring his matchup from scoring or assisting, according to data provided to The Ringer by NBA Advanced Stats. Tatum finds himself against one of the opponent’s best offensive threats so often because he switches on-ball screens eight times per game, which ranks in the top 15 in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats.

Stevens views Tatum’s defensive progress as a sign of his improving leadership—he communicates, plays hard, and is doing something less glamorous than scoring to set a tone for the rest of the team. “My biggest goal for Jayson and Jaylen [Brown], as they grow together in this league, is to become two of the league’s best leaders. That’s what I care the most about,” Stevens said. Brown, drafted third one year before Tatum, has also made significant progress on both ends this season. But Tatum has become the alpha offensively, and Stevens has begun to ride him. “I haven’t done anything special,” Stevens said. “He’s just more and more comfortable.”

It took a while for Tatum to get comfortable. He might have led the Celtics to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals as a rookie, but he made only marginal offensive progress in his second season, following his summer workout with Bryant. “It was really, really frustrating,” Tatum said of his sophomore year. Some fans point to the Kyrie Irving Experience to explain why the Celtics derailed last season, but the reality is Tatum wasn’t good enough to carry a team; in 2018-19, he scored only 0.6 points per possession using isolations, which ranked last of 85 players to log at least 70 isolations, per Synergy. “There were technical issues he had to get better at and learn how to execute,” Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said. So the Celtics pushed Tatum to improve his shot profile over the summer to take more 3s and layups. This season, Tatum’s shot selection looks much different.

Jayson Tatum’s Isolation and Pick-and-Roll Shot Distribution

Shot Zone First Two Seasons This Season Difference
Shot Zone First Two Seasons This Season Difference
At-Rim 29% 25% -4%
Midrange 55% 31% -24%
3-Pointers 16% 44% 28%

Tatum went from attempting more than half his shots from midrange in isolations and pick-and-rolls to less than one-third, according to Synergy Sports data. “Jayson has been really committed to this,” Stevens said, and you can see it on the court. Tatum doesn’t settle anymore; he goes all the way to the basket instead of pulling up from midrange, and he’s extended his stepbacks and side steps from deep midrange to 3-point land. The changes have made him one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers, tallying an elite 1.1 points per possession in pick-and-rolls and isolations, per Synergy Sports. How’d he do it? Work.

“Our big focus over the summer was generating more 3s with side steps, stepbacks, shuffle-outs, just quick pull-ups off the 3-point line,” Hanlen said. Last season, Tatum shot 32.4 percent on 1.4 dribble-jumper 3s per game. Now he leads the NBA in unassisted 3-point percentage, hitting 40.4 percent of his 4.5 dribble-jumper 3s per game. It’s working against anyone, including the game’s best defenders.

Tatum also focused on attacking the basket during the offseason by limiting his floaters, taking long strides on his drives, and initiating contact at the rim. He did plenty of it early in his career, but the results weren’t there. Over his first 18 games, Tatum shot 51 percent on shots around the rim. The key ingredient for most great scorers is success near the rim, whether it’s from finishing a layup or drawing a foul. Tatum didn’t have it—until now. “We noticed that when guys like James Harden or Bradley Beal drive, they pick the ball up early, then swing it through to draw contact,” Hanlen said. “Jayson was trying to draw contact, then pick up the ball, which is why he lost the ball a lot.”

The difference is subtle but critical. Tatum’s shooting percentage at the rim jumped from 51 percent over his first 18 games to 64 percent since, and his free throw rate is rising accordingly. The threat of his perimeter jumper, in combination with his improved at-rim finishing, has propelled him from being one of the game’s worst scorers on drives to the rim to one of the best.

Jayson Tatum on Drives to the Rim

Stat Category 2018-19 Rank 2019-20 Rank
Stat Category 2018-19 Rank 2019-20 Rank
Points Rate 63rd 3rd
Fouls Drawn 106th 12th
Turnover Rate 112th 11th
Data via NBA Advanced Stats. Minimum 300 drives. The 2018-19 season sample includes 126 players, and the 2019-20 season sample includes 92.

“Every year, he’s gonna add something that’s gonna surprise people. But whatever it is, it’ll make sense,” Beal said. “When it’s all said and done, he’ll be one thousand times better than me.” Beal said he had to add a countermove to his side step and stepback 3s in order to create hesitation from the defense and generate a driving lane toward the rim; he anticipates that Tatum will eventually have to do the same once defenses catch on to his moves. Playmaking has taken on greater importance for Beal as teams have trapped and doubled him. Tatum is facing increased pressure, too. Before he was named an All-Star, Tatum was doubled-teamed 11 possessions per game. In 13 games since then, that number has risen to 16. Boston’s production has been consistently strong when Tatum is doubled; it has scored 1.1 points per possession in those situations over the full season. Even greater challenges will come in the postseason, but if his history of improvement is any indication, Tatum will be able to adapt and thrive.

Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers
Tatum with his son and mom, Brandy Cole-Barnes, after a game against the Lakers at Staples Center last year
Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images

Tatum has wanted to be named an All-Star since he was a child. He used to buy Kobe’s All-Star jerseys, and had hoped he’d be recognized as one in his second season, just like Kobe was for the first of his 18 times. Entering his third season, making the team was “heavy on my mind,” he said. “Once I found out that I made it, it was like a burden lifted off my shoulders. I got to relax and not worry. I’ve just been playing stress-free since.” Opponents are certainly stressed now whether he’s lurking in the lane with his long arms or isolating at the top of the key, but the man who drafted him doesn’t want Tatum to relax too much. Ainge has seen many players flame out in his four decades in the NBA as a player, coach, broadcaster, and executive.

“My greatest fear is that Jayson has too much success and that he doesn’t maintain that level of work, humility, and desire to continue to become as great as some of the greatest players in the game,” Ainge admitted. “Now people are going to come after you, and you’re going to be challenged even more and more. And if you really want to honor Kobe, you must have the same kind of work ethic, drive, and motivation to become truly great.”

True stardom requires sustained success, so in many ways Tatum is just at the beginning. His trajectory is hard to ignore, though. At a minimum, Tatum is going to be a key player on a playoff team during his prime years. At most? Well, LeBron James cited Tatum as one of the future faces of the NBA. “The league is in great hands with guys like Zion [Williamson], Ja Morant, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, and the list goes on,” LeBron said on ESPN. “I’m just happy to be a part of it and be on the floor with those guys in their younger days.”

Soon, kids will want to hang posters of Tatum in their bedroom—or in today’s world, maybe he’s the background on their phones. Tatum still has memorabilia of his idol around his current house. After Kobe passed, Tatum had family friends retrieve some of his Kobe shoes and jerseys to put on display in his home. It’s a constant reminder of what Kobe meant to him, Cole-Barnes said, and of the passion and drive they both shared.

“He’s just always loved basketball,” she said. “He’s always worked relentlessly on being the best, and I’m certain he always will.”

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