Jayson Tatum’s Defensive Revelation

— November 28th 2017

The biggest revelation for Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum has come on the defensive end.

By Danny Emerman

So far, Jayson Tatum is an outlier in many ways. Particularly, rookies are very rarely expected to defend at a high level, but Tatum is already playing smart team defense and staying in front of attackers.

Although he was often miscast by Coach K at Duke as the team’s tallest player on the court, Tatum’s defense still left much to be desired in college.

Now, under Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics, the Duke product is defending much better than anyone could have anticipated.

Nobody expected Tatum to be even an average defender this quickly. According to his Sports Illustrated scouting report by Stanley Kay, Tatum’s lack of athleticism caused concerns on the defensive end:

“He’s developing as a passer but isn’t a playmaker with the ball in his hands, and if he doesn’t work on defense, it’s hard to see how he’ll impact the game when he isn’t shooting the ball. Tatum will have to expand his game or risk being branded a one-dimensional scoring specialist.”

The player comparison everyone loved was Carmelo Anthony. Tatum is already a better defender than Anthony has been consistently in his whole career. That mostly comes down to effort and the system, and Tatum has the edge on both those external variables.

Tied with teammates Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, Tatum is second in the league in Defensive Win Shares (DWS) with 1.3. DWS is a stat that attempts to divvy up team defensive success to individuals, which is why so many Celtics appear in the leaderboard. The only other rookie in the top-50 in DWS is Ben Simmons, who is a freak unto himself. Tatum is also in the top-10 in Defensive Rating, ahead of Brown and Marcus Smart.

Those advanced stats could be slightly misleading because of how well the Celtics have played defensively as a whole. Defensive metrics in general are not always great indicators. Possibly a more accurate number for Tatum is his Defensive Box Plus/Minus, which has him tied for 11th in the league.

One notable player whose name is nowhere to be found on any defensive leaderboards is Jae Crowder. Two years ago in Boston, Crowder was one of the best defenders in the league, using his brute force to bully players both on the perimeter and down low. Since then, he has fallen off a cliff, both last year in Boston and this year with Cleveland. The Celtics are better off defensively right now with Jayson Tatum than Crowder, and that would have been hard to believe two seasons ago.

Tatum is not by any means a defensive stopper…yet. Most rookies are minus defenders, but Tatum uses his length (7-foot wingspan) and basketball I.Q. to close out on shooters and beat slashers to the spot while guarding both forward positions.

Here, he locks up Aaron Gordon, who has a clear size advantage. Tatum does not shy away from Gordon. Instead, he plays it perfectly, allowing Gordon space but not too much space for takeoff. Tatum cuts him off at the foul line and forces him into a tough shot.

He can even stay with quick point guards who have the speed advantage. Even if he falls behind by a step, he uses his length to recover at the rim. He is also great at blocking jump shots, which he seems to do about once every game because he can sag off and still contest.

Against the Mavericks, Tatum again uses his length to swat Dennis Smith Jr. at the rim. Watch his awareness to see the ball as he denies Wes Matthews’ off-ball cut.

Brad Stevens knew the hype about Tatum being a defensive liability was overblown. In October, he said “I don’t know if surprised is the right word, but Jayson Tatum’s defense is beyond his years.”

The skills that stick out most for Tatum are clearly on the offensive end, where he is as polished as any rookie in recent memory. But the pleasant surprise is certainly his defense, where his competitiveness, basketball I.Q., and length already have him defending at a respectable level, which is impressive for any rookie.

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