Scorers and defenses exist in conversation with one another—a successful move makes the scouting report, which inspires a counter, which forces an adjustment, which encourages a different approach. Round and round it goes, until one side shrugs. A season interrupted gave Jayson Tatum the last word. The evolution in his game is undeniable, at least until the league reconvenes, establishes some provisional sense of order, and again finds the work of stopping him to be a priority.
It could be a while. What we’re left with, in the meantime, is an emerging player in a cloud of nebulous concepts. Tatum is very clearly some kind of star. What kind is a matter of fuzzy designations and fine lines, but still important in determining how his career progresses from this point. After reviewing all 1,113 shots he attempted last season, I came away dazzled as much by the technique as the possibilities. Should the Celtics run their offense through Tatum or around him? Would an ideal arrangement pair him with another singular star or more of a composite like the 2018-19 Raptors? Tatum has gotten so good so fast that he forces his team to go deep on team-building theory, to interrogate what they want and why.
Not six months ago, Tatum was eager to change but out of his element. His offseason project was the expansion of his long-range game—a correction from the way he floated and settled in less productive spaces last season. Yet the early, open 3-pointers that Tatum prioritized came off his wrist stiff. Even shot selection needs to be broken in. By December, he wore those pull-up 3s comfortably:
Given a few more months, he began to make that shot his own. There’s no clearer sign of Tatum’s diligence than his compact means of generating offense. Instinctive creators will often rely on big, looping moves with the ball—exaggerated crossovers into elaborate stepbacks. Tatum, in contrast, finds advantage in precision. What others might accomplish with a series of moves he can sometimes manage with a jab step. You can see the calculation in Tatum from the way he catches the ball: always on balance, creating some point of advantage before his possession even begins. A talented NBA player can put up a lot of points and make a lot of money strictly by reacting to what goes on around them. Tatum, by contrast, is increasingly calculated—down to the expected yield of the shots he takes.
When Tatum breaks down an opponent with considered micro-moves, the brilliance of his game shines through:
Compare the movement of Tatum and his defender, Miles Bridges. With a slight jab step, Tatum sends Bridges in one direction, and in pulling back for a shot fake, yanks him the opposite way. Before Bridges can fully balance himself, Tatum surges past—as if there was never a defender there. This is a star play, the impressive made accessible. Yet part of Tatum’s blossoming appeal this season was the cumulative impact of his game. The freedom to turn him loose in iso shouldn’t be a requirement. If Boston runs a pick-and-roll on the opposite side of the floor, Tatum already understands how to make himself available for a potential kick-out pass. An impressive score from Tatum could come off the second or third handoff in a sequence, or an Iverson cut across the floor, or a throwback jumper from the mid-post. It’s the layering of all of this that makes Tatum so effective, even without the kind of direct authorship that other stars enjoy.
Which, in and of itself, is grounds for a kind of philosophical consideration. Superstardom is almost synonymous with control; the most straightforward way for a single player to have an outsized effect on the game is to have the ball in their hands, and to dictate where it goes. Boston doesn’t rely on Tatum in that way, nor should they. At 22, Tatum clearly thinks about the game on a matchup level—he’s more focused on dismantling a defender than a defense. That can be a barrier to a kind of stardom, as we know it, though not explicitly a kind of quality. Every player’s talent comes to life a bit differently. In Tatum’s case, the way he plays on offense has more in common with Paul George or Kevin Durant than it does James Harden or LeBron James. The distinction—between primary scorers and primary playmakers—is elemental, down to the way those players make sense of the chaos around them.
Tatum isn’t exactly the type to survey. He doesn’t manipulate the backline defender like he does the man in front of him, nor is he expected to. Often, his clearest way out is through:
Playmaking is almost an incidental by-product to the way Tatum asserts himself—a possibility that emerges during a drive. It’s enough to keep a defense honest, though not enough to stop them from exploring their options when play resumes. Opponents will get more creative with their traps and double-teams, many of which will require Tatum to apply the rigor of his one-on-one game to a wider lens. The great, open question of his career is how he responds, and what that response means to the future of the Celtics. It really is a matter of degrees that separates Tatum from George, and George from Durant, though in every degree there is a world of difference. A team building around Durant builds differently than it might around any other, stylistically similar player. Basketball, despite its substitutions and positions, has always been a game of incredible specificity. The only way for Tatum to be a star is to be a star unto himself.
What’s clear in watching all the different ways that Tatum scores is Boston’s breadth of possibility. Settling on the best possible team around Tatum isn’t a straightforward exercise, but it is a forgiving one; Tatum can score on and defend so many different types of players in so many different arrangements that he allows the Celtics to toy with their best options as they become available. This is transmutational skill, fit for any system and any lineup:
Tatum, then, is the kind of star who rewards a team’s complexity. The deeper and richer the roster, the more opportunity he’ll have to expand its horizons. While the skill sets and egos of other prospects might bump against one another, Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Jaylen Brown are flexible enough to enjoy the benefits of their differences. Yet if the Celtics someday trade Brown or see Hayward (who could decline his player option to hit the market this summer) leave in free agency, Tatum could also continue on his trajectory without issue. Anything and everything is on the table. More often than the other two wings, Tatum is left to his own devices as the closest thing Boston has to a go-to scorer. It suits him. There are a seemingly infinite number of ways to get Tatum involved in a possession, to be deployed from practically any scheme and at almost any angle. If there’s any doubt as to how valuable that might be, Celtics opponents will soon offer clarity in how they try to manage it. What better way to understand a star than by its reflection?