Jayson Tatum is Boston’s wing of the future

— November 1st 2017

The basketball world collectively rolled their eyes when Danny Ainge claimed he would have taken Jayson Tatum number one in this summer’s draft. Perhaps the wry old fox was being truthful for once.

By: Paul Headley

Opening Night. Five minutes and 10 seconds into the season, Gordon Hayward writhed in agony on the TD Garden floor. Celtics fans looked on with dismay, certain that a season ripe with expectation was lost.

Hope that this squad could compete for a championship, however idealistic it may have been, is gone. Still, a wave of optimism has passed over the Celtics faithful, and on it’s crest is Jayson Tatum. Boston’s prized rookie has surpassed expectations. His surprisingly solid play on both ends has been a major factor in the teams 5-2 start. Tatum has been spectacularly efficient. Per Basketball-Reference:

Tatum’s True Shooting Percentage (TS%) and Win Shares Per 48 minutes (WS/48) are absurdly high, while his PER is also well-above average. Rookies, particularly those playing a lot of minutes like Tatum, almost never make league average in those three categories. According to Basketball-Reference, only 27 rookies in league history have done so while playing at least 2,400 minutes in a season (Note: I’m using a 15 PER, .100 WS/48 and a 55 TS% as average).

Bump the thresholds up to high-level starter (20 PER, .150 WS/48 and .600 TS%) and that number reduces down to just one: Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

It’s notoriously difficult for rookies to make winning contributions. The pace of the game is different, and it’s not uncommon for players to become lost in a sea of complex schemes and bruising physicality. Even if, as is highly likely, Tatum’s statistical resume regresses to the mean, he still has a shot at joining some pretty elite company.

How has Tatum made such an impact?

Offense

Reaction across the league to Boston trading down in the 2017 NBA draft (via the Sixers) was generally one of confusion. Why would a team give up the chance to draft a potential phenom in Markelle Fultz, a player who’s off-the-bounce creation and three-point shooting seemed custom built for the modern league?

Expert opinion was divided on Tatum. Some felt he was a guaranteed go-to scorer, the type of late-clock dynamo critical to high-level playoff teams no matter how beautiful their ball-movement is. Others felt his game was antiquated, far too dependent on iso-scoring and mid-range ball-stopping.

Both sides seem to be wrong. Tatum has excelled thus far, but not in the way college fans might have anticipated.

Per NBA Stats, Tatum has isolated on just 11.1 percent of his possessions (scoring an above average 0.89 points-per-possession), with the majority of his offense coming off of spot-ups (28.4 percent of possessions) and transition opportunities (21 percent of possessions). The former Duke forward is scoring an absurd 1.71 points-per-possession out on the break. He’s very comfortable spotting up at the right corner:

Tatum is also capable of taking the ball coast-to-coast.

 

If you’re counting, that’s four seconds from board to bucket. Watch how well he protects the basket from Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton (and how insane it was that Giannis almost blocked the lay-up. Good lord.)

The vast majority of Tatum’s baskets have come either at the rim or from three-point range, and he’s been super-efficient (albeit in a small sample size).

Among rookies, Tatum ranks second only to Ben Simmons in offensive rebound percentage (5.6 percent), testament to how active he is attacking the glass for second-chance points. The Celtics rebounding woes have been infinitely less pronounced this year. In 2016–17, the team ranked 27th in total rebound percentage (48.5 percent). This year, the team is 6th in the league at 51.8 percent. The lion’s share of the credit goes to newly acquired Aron Baynes, as well as the absence of diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas. But Tatum deserves credit as well. Watch him drop a Porzingis on Porzingis:

 

Tatum isn’t an elite athlete, but a combination of fluidity, timing, length and desire are more than enough to compensate.

When tasked with doing so, Tatum can still work his man one-on-one of course. Watch the Celtics hunt out the mismatch with Brogdon; one quick burst and he’s at the basket. These kind of skills will be a valuable commodity down the road:

Hustle and Defense

Tatum is no high-lottery prima donna. The man works, far harder and more intelligently than the average 19-year-old. In addition to his aforementioned rebound rate, Tatum has the highest block percentage (29.6 percent) of any rookie starter who has started each game. Rather than flail his arms when a ball isn’t delivered when he’s open, Tatum works hard to stay active and get involved. Watch him outwork James Johnson to a loose ball, sell Josh Richardson with the nice fake, then power his way up for the bucket. And one.

 

Tatum has been more than adequate on defense thus far. While he’s struggled effectively closing out on shooters (and does tend to be easily screened), he has been solid one-on-one in the post and in isolation. Far more encouraging for Celtics fans has been his motor and willingness to work on defense.

How much of this can be sustained?

High-end efficiency is unlikely to continue. Scouting reports catch-up to rookies, fatigue sets in and slumps emerge in most cases. What has been produced thus far should be more than enough to provide hope that a serious championship contender might lie down the road. Jaylen Brown, Tatum and Hayward are the prototypical wings a team needs to challenge Golden State. Switchy, athletic wings who can hit threes and rampage on the break.

The Celtics still have questions. Does Horford’s timeline match-up with their youth movement? When will Hayward return, and will he ever be the same player? The question of whether Jayson Tatum is a next-level player, however, is all but gone.

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