Finding a Bigger Offensive Role for Jayson Tatum

— January 3rd 2018

Jayson Tatum has shown that he is capable of handling a bigger load in the Boston Celtics’ offense. But, placing the rookie in a higher role may not be so easy.

Media members and fans who follow the Boston Celtics long for a more prominent offensive role for Jayson Tatum. The 19-year-old small forward has consistently shown polish on the offensive end by reaching into his deep bag of tricks. So why does he only shoot nine times per game?

Tatum is shooting over 50 percent from the field and about 48 percent from three-point land, leading the league. He’s averaging 14.2 points per game with a true shooting percentage* of .645 (eighth in the league).

*True Shooting Percentage measures a player’s shooting efficiency by taking account the value of three-pointers, two-pointers and free throws.

Tatum has proven to be an elite catch-and-shoot sniper as well as a tough shot-maker late in the shot clock. His first step is very quick, and he uses jab steps and ball fakes to burn defenders. At the rim, Tatum has a variety of scoop finishes from either side of the rim and can also rise up to slam it down strong.

When Tatum shoots eight or more shots in a game, the Celtics are 21-6. When he attempts less than eight, they’re 8-4. More so, Boston is 12-3 when Tatum shoots at least 11 shots. Generally, the higher Tatum’s volume, the more success the Celtics have.

Boston’s curious offensive pecking order

With the way he’s played, Tatum has certainly earned a bigger role in the offense. He only has a usage percentage of 17.8 (compare that to Marcus Morris’ 23.9 and Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell’s ridiculous 28.5). But, who else on the team is willing to sacrifice?

You’re not taking any shots away from Kyrie Irving, the engine of the offense. Nor Al Horford, the selfless facilitator. The main, most popular and obvious option is Marcus Smart, whose scorching two weeks make him a 31 percent three-point shooter.

While Smart is a horrific shooter from the outside, he’s always crucial to the offense, as Matt Moore and Mike Prada explain. His shooting volume often has an inverse effect on his individual play and his team’s success, which is almost incomprehensible. In other words, the more he shoots, the better he and the Celtics play.

The 29-10 Celtics are 21-1 when Smart has a positive plus/minus. You can do the math there. When he plays well, the Celtics are unbeatable. Three of Smart’s four highest plus-minus games have come when he shoots more than 11 times. He didn’t shoot better than 33 percent in any of them.

Even when the shots aren’t falling, Smart’s volume shooting keeps him engaged on the defensive end and aggressive in playmaking. He takes 9.5 shots per game, and obviously, it would be better if he made more than 34 percent of them, but that’s the trade-off with Smart: the Celtics let him shoot so he can make winning plays when it counts, like drawing consecutive game-winning offensive fouls on MVP James Harden.

Should Jaylen Brown surrender some of his 11.2 field goal attempts per game? Perhaps. But, Brown is still developing in his own right; his post-up game is improving and he’s canning 40 percent of his triples. He attacks the rim with such force quickness, it’s easy to see flashes of a future multiple time All-Star. In his second year in the league, the 21-year-old has improved dramatically, and cutting back on his offensive role could hurt his confidence and advancement. Don’t give up on Jaylen Brown just yet.

The only player who shoots more than Tatum and Smart is Marcus Morris, resident bench scorer. Morris has struggled to stay healthy and has expressed frustration in coming off the bench. He’s jacking 10.2 shots per game; what’s the problem? It would not be surprising if Morris’ name is floated around as the trade deadline approaches, and dealing him could be the easiest way to carve out a bigger role for Tatum.

But, it’s not that simple. Morris has value: he’s another 6-foot-8 guy to throw at LeBron James. And, even if Boston gets rid of him, Tatum will be back at square one when All-Star Gordon Hayward eventually returns.

Maybe this is the wrong way to look at this problem. Since Hayward left the lineup five minutes into the season, Tatum has been thrust into a starting role as the fourth offensive option behind Irving, Horford and Brown. Playing with the starters has been great for his development; he picks his spots, makes plays within the offense, and doesn’t have the pressure of having the ball in his hands all the time.

He’s ready for more. More touches, more shots, more everything. Let Tatum be the focal point of the second unit. Run everything through him. He hasn’t shown great strides in being the ball-handler in the pick and roll, but he can surely be the screener. Every play with “Tatum-plus-bench” units should involve him in a dribble handoff, in the post, curling off a screen or as the on-ball screener. This is where he can up his shot attempt totals and still contribute in crunch time as a complimentary piece with the starters.

Tatum, Smart, Terry Rozier, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes have played 19 minutes together. That unit has blitzed teams by 23 points. Replace Baynes with Daniel Theis, and they’re not nearly as good (-0.3 in 33 minutes), but the foundation is there. Tatum can already carry a bench unit by himself. The best way to find him a bigger offensive workload is to let him shine in the minutes without Kyrie Irving and the starters.

Stats accurate as of December 31st, 2017

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