Jayson Tatum is blossoming into a superstar before our eyes. He’s averaging over 25 points per game over his last 12 games, a stretch which includes his first-ever back-to-back 30 point games, a career-high 41, and a 39 point performance against a strong defense in the Clippers. There is an argument to be made over whether or not he is Boston’s best all-around player, and the key to their recent success.
One of the keys to Tatum’s improvement is his refined finishing. His propensity to get a step on his defender and pull up for a long two-pointer last year was maddening. He possessed all the tools to get to the free-throw line whenever he wanted but refused to do so. Whether a symptom of a frustrating season for the team or simply a bad habit, he has largely fixed his shot selection and decision-making this season. Last season he averaged only three free throws per game, but he is making five per game in their last 12 matchups.
Tatum appears more willing to attack the rim, and his improved control of the ball cannot be understated. His handle looks tighter, flashing moves that make fans drool with more regularity, and his touch around the basket—his Achilles heel in the past—has improved. According to NBA.com, his field goal percentage from within five feet of the basket is at nearly 60 percent since December 15, when earlier in the season he shot below 50 percent. He is also hitting shots from the dreaded area in between the foul line and the restricted area, a range that often makes or breaks a slasher. These floaters force help defenders to play up, prohibiting them from simply waiting on the layup.
Tatum is also making hay with the three-point shot. Scouts questioned whether or not he would develop a consistent outside shot and avoid a reliance on the long midrange shots that cramp spacing and make it difficult to play off the ball. Tatum answered that question immediately upon entering the NBA, shooting over 50 percent from behind the arc in his first two months as a pro. Nowadays, Tatum is upping the game with his shot profile. He is the second-most accurate shooter on pull-up threes out of anybody taking more than three per game, narrowly beating out ex-teammate Kyrie Irving. He is no longer limited to just spot-ups, and between that and his newfound touch around the basket, Tatum has an ever-growing arsenal to supplement his bread and butter mid-range game.
Tatum showed signs of defensive promise in his rookie season, most notably against Kevin Durant early last year, but he is now also emerging into an elite defensive player. He digs down and takes pride in guarding every possession, something he only did intermittently last season. He is also a master of positioning off the ball, the secret sauce of modern defense. Ever since the NBA allowed zone defenses, zoning up off the ball to plug gaps is commonplace, and teams who can do it well have a huge advantage. It is no accident the Celtics play a team like Milwaukee well. Tatum is fast, long enough to recover to whichever weak side shooter you choose to pass to, and he can even steal the pass if the decision isn’t instantaneous. He is a legitimate candidate for the all-defense team.
After years of hoarding assets to pounce at Anthony Davis once he inevitably demanded a trade, the Celtics finally stayed quiet at the trade deadline. Though the dream of Davis in Boston is dead, it’s nice to finally be able to just enjoy the players the Celtics have without the fear of them being traded. Jayson Tatum is growing into a Boston’s own superstar, and I’m ready to let him take us wherever he can.