In an alternate reality, the top of the 2017 NBA Draft isn’t nearly as weird. Based on how much stock you put into what Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge’s comments on the draft — which, most people probably wouldn’t blame you if you took this with a grain of salt — the team was locked into drafting Jayson Tatum with the No. 1 pick. This did not happen, however, because the Philadelphia 76ers were hell-bent on trading up from No. 3 to No. 1 to select the player widely regarded to be the best prospect in the draft, Markelle Fultz.
Perhaps Philly doesn’t push its chips to the middle of the table, sits at No. 3, and still ends up with Fultz. Perhaps Boston stays at No. 1 and takes Tatum, which at the time, would have seemed like an awfully risky idea. But regardless, we know what ended up happening — Fultz goes No. 1, Lonzo Ball goes to the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2, and Tatum goes No. 3 — and we can safely say that the Celtics made a pretty good decision to grab the former five-star recruit and Duke standout.
Tatum has been a key piece to the puzzle in Beantown to start the 2019-20 campaign. It’s come at a crucial time for Boston, both because it went through some major turnover this past offseason and because reports indicate the Celtics have been extremely protective of him whenever his name has come up in trade conversations. Add in that he didn’t take the major step forward between his rookie and sophomore campaigns that some anticipated and Tatum was certainly coming into this season under the microscope.
In response, Tatum has been the team’s best player so far this season. Tasked with shouldering the heaviest workload of his career — his usage rate through 14 games is a career-high 27.4 percent — Tatum has responded by looking better than ever. His 20.9 points per game are a career-best mark, as are his 7.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.4 steals a night.
Scoring has never been the question with Tatum, who has always exhibited polish and fearlessness when his team needs a bucket that is a rarity for a player his age. It’s the skill that made him such a tantalizing prospect for the Celtics, and, after exhibiting maybe a bit too much of the Mamba Mentality last year, he’s actually been more willing to cut back on the long twos this season. Threes make up 35.4 percent of the shots Tatum attempts this season, the highest mark of his career, while twos in that pesky range between 10 feet and just inside of the three-point line are at a career-low. As a rookie, he took those shots 28.4 percent of the time, which ticked up to 30.6 percent of the time as a sophomore.
This year, he’s taking midrange jumpers 22.7 percent of the time. The shots he’s taken aren’t always going in, as evidenced by the fact that Tatum is shooting a career-worst 42.3 percent on twos this year, but his shots from three-point range are going in 39.1 percent of the time. Should those other shots start falling — especially ones at the rim, where he’s hitting 50.7 percent of his attempts, about 13 percentage points below his career average — his offensive output has the potential to explode.
“I don’t want to say that it’s too different, but I see a different way, a different assertiveness in the right things,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens remarked during the offseason. “He’s practiced really hard, made a conscious effort to take the right shots and not be any less aggressive. He’s still really aggressive.”
We got a glimpse into that Tatum on Wednesday night. While Boston lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in an overtime thriller, 107-104, Tatum was quite good, dropping a season-high 30 points on 12-for-24 shooting from the field and 5-for-10 shooting from three, including a monstrous triple that sent the game to overtime.
JAYSON TATUM DROPPED HIM TO TIE THE GAME 😱 pic.twitter.com/WYTPLtajTD
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 21, 2019
For how big Tatum has come up offensively in some games, his best attribute this year has been his impact on the defensive end of the floor. Per Cleaning the Glass, lineups with Tatum are in the 94th percentile in points allowed per 100 possessions and the 93rd percentile in opponent effective field goal percentage. He’s been especially good on the defensive end guarding 4s — those numbers increase, in those situations, to the 98th and 94th percentile of all players.
It helps, of course, that he spends a ton of time on the floor with some excellent defenders — Cleaning the Glass indicates that of Tatum’s 999 possessions played this season, 696 of them have come next to perhaps the most versatile defensive player in all of basketball, Marcus Smart — but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s good at using his size, length, and ability to anticipate what opponents will do to his advantage. Through 14 games, Tatum leads the Celtics in Defensive Win Shares, and he’s been a terror when he gets to read and react to passes by opponents, sitting second to only Smart in deflections per game.
Coming into this season, Tatum stressed that one of his goals was to get on Smart’s level defensively. It’s more of an endorsement of his teammate when I say that might be tough bar to clear than anything, but he has certainly made progress on that front.
Jayson Tatum said to me tonight that he and Jaylen Brown have their sights set on joining Marcus Smart as All-Defensive-level performers. Stevens has lauded Tatum's defensive growth often this week.
— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) October 12, 2019
In terms of individual accolades, what might be more attainable for Tatum is making the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. He came close to making it last year, and while there are a few frontcourt spots in the Eastern Conference that we can jot down in pen — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and probably Pascal Siakam — he’s going to have one heck of a case if he keeps up this play on both ends of the floor and the Celtics keep winning basketball games. It’d come at a perfect time, too, as it would give Tatum some leverage when his representatives sit down at the negotiating table with Boston’s front office in an attempt to figure out a contract extension next summer.
The Celtics were expected to be good this season, but the thought was the team ran the risk of getting off to a slow start as they figured out what they were following the offseason losses of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and role players like Aron Baynes, Marcus Morris, and Terry Rozier. But despite this, and despite the fact that one of the team’s starters, Gordon Hayward, is out due to hand surgery, Boston has been arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference so far.
There are plenty of reasons why, but high atop the list has been the two-way play of Tatum. Not bad for someone who wasn’t taken with the No. 1 pick in his draft class.