Perhaps you’ve heard: Bill Simmons is a big fan of Jayson Tatum. The Celtics forward put together one of the best seasons for a 19-year-old in NBA history and recently sat down with Simmons to talk Kobe Bryant, Brad Stevens, and more.
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
On His Favorite Player Growing Up
Tatum: For young guys—obviously we’re in the NBA, but we still kinda look up to a lot of guys that are older than us.
Simmons: Your guy was LeBron, right? As a kid?
Tatum: No, my favorite player was Kobe.
Simmons: Oh, so when he did the Detail [episode] on you, that was a big deal.
Tatum: Yeah, I watched it like 70 times. That was my favorite player ever. But LeBron was one of them, Carmelo, Paul George, KD. Guys that just play the wing position.
Simmons: Who did you borrow from when you were learning how to become a basketball player? Or were you just, like, your own style?
Tatum: I took a little bit from everybody. Especially like, I studied a lot of Paul George and Melo when I was in high school. Those were two guys that I always would watch film on. And Kobe, just from the day I started playing. Like, he was the reason I wanted to play basketball [as] a kid. My earliest basketball memory was of him.
Simmons: So how old are you, 20?
Tatum: 20 and a half.
Simmons: So you start watching basketball right around when he had his 81-point game and stuff like that. Like, you remember that.
Tatum: Even before then, like when I was like 4 or 5, I’d just always tell—my mom would ask me what I wanted to be when I got older. And I would just be like, “I wanna be Kobe.” She’d be like, “You wanna be in the NBA?” “No, like, I wanna be Kobe.” He was just my favorite player. I had his posters, all his jerseys. That was my guy.
Simmons: Well, I don’t like that he’s become your friend and you’re working out with him in the summer. He’s a Laker; we don’t like the Lakers.
Tatum: I used to hate Boston.
Simmons: Yeah, well, we need to fix that.
Tatum: No, I love Boston now.
Simmons: Now you’re in Boston for the next 20 years. You might have to dump Kobe. Might have to get rid of him. We hate the Lakers. Now they have LeBron. The rivalry could be back. I mean, man—’60s, ’80s, last decade, and now it could be on again. What kind of stuff does Kobe tell you? Does he do that Mamba Mentality and the mind-game warrior and all that stuff, or does he actually work with footwork? What is he doing with you?
Tatum: I got a chance to just sit down and talk to him first. You know, I got to meet with him. And we talked about a lot of things, basketball-related, non-basketball-related. I tried to get into his mind and see how he went about things. Just trying to get better each year, what he wanted to improve year after year so he didn’t backtrack or be complacent. His will to just be the best and just striving to get better every year. That’s one thing I found interesting. When we were working out, his thing was just trying to break the game down and make it as simple as possible. He said the year he averaged 35, all he worked on in the summertime was pivot foot, trying to play off both pivots. He said, “That’s all I did for the entire summer. Obviously, I expanded off a move from each pivot and a counter move to that.” But he was like, “The entire summer that’s all I worked on.”
When Tatum Knew Brad Stevens Was Special
Simmons: When did you realize that Stevens was a coaching freak and that he could drop magical inbound plays out of thin air and do all these crazy things that he does during games? Was that right away or was that like halfway through a season? Like “Oh, my God, this is unique.”
Tatum: Right away. But my favorite play is when we played Philly Game 3.
Simmons: The Al Horford play?
Tatum: Yeah, even the play before that when, I think it might’ve been before overtime, or it might’ve been in overtime, but I was taking it out by our bench. And we were doing some cuts and I threw it over the top to [Jaylen Brown], and he caught it and laid it in. But Brad, the Al Horford play, he just knew—I remember I was at the block and he knew Philly was switching everything. So, whoever set the pick for me, I ran to the corner, their man switched on me, and Al set a pick for [Brown] so that made [Joel] Embiid switch, and [Brown] ran to the other side of the court so we wanted Embiid away from the basket. And we knew, once they switched, he was going to be on top of them. So he said, “All you gotta do, Al, is seal them. You’ll be wide open.” And when it worked just how he said it was going to work, I was like, “Wow. That was crazy.” Like, everything worked exactly how he said it was going to work, and it won us a game.
Simmons: That play was sick. I think this is his [sixth] year, and I think he’s run like 200 out-of-bounds plays at this point. And like half of them either worked or should’ve worked or somebody missed a shot. But he’s the first one I’ve ever seen do the one where it’s the guy is in-bounding from midcourt, and he just throws to a spot in the corner and somebody actually runs and catches it like a football receiver and then turns and shoots. I’d never seen that before. And the Celtics, I think, have won games with that.
Tatum: I like that fact that it’s not always who you expect [who] is gonna get the ball. Just who he knows is gonna be open. And it’s been guys that sometimes would not play for 10 games and then we have guys that are hurt and they’re playing and he draws up an out-of-bounds play for them. And they’re wide open and they hit the shot. We would’ve never thought he’s gonna draw it up for them.
Simmons: One of the things he does, it seems like everybody feels like they have skin in the game, kind of, on the team. Like Aron Baynes could end up shooting the biggest shot of the game in the corner. If you’re getting minutes, you might be involved in the biggest play of the game, basically. Which I haven’t seen a lot of coaches do. I think the NBA’s gotten pretty predictable with the good teams, where it’s like, “This guy’s probably gonna shoot. If he doesn’t shoot, this guy’s gonna shoot.” And those are the two options. He’s figured out a way to be a little more democratic about it.