The 2019-20 NBA season has been a banner campaign for Jayson Tatum. He was a first-time All-Star, finished fourth in Most Improved Player voting, and looks en route to his first All-NBA honor. The 22-year-old emerged as a lethal pull-up shooter, converting 40.4 percent of his off-the-bounce triples, and was a devastating wing scorer over the second half of the season, averaging 26.7 points on a 48/45.6/78 slash line (61.1 percent true shooting) during his final 27 games.
Already a top-20ish player in his third year, this outburst emphasized his future superstardom as a top-10 player at his peak. He’d a be a two-way artist, excelling as an off-ball roamer defensively and shouldering substantial on-ball creation offensively, although he’s not quite at the level of a high-end primary initiator. Essentially, good enough as a co-star on a championship-caliber team, but unlikely to be the guy.
Shortly before the season was postponed in March, though, Tatum began flashing signs of improvements as a passer, which continued into Orlando this summer. After coasting past an outmatched and undermanned Philadelphia 76ers squad that failed to pose resistance against his scoring artillery, he’s faced a stingier task in the Toronto Raptors, the league’s second-ranked defensive unit during the regular season. This is where he’s tapped into his facilitating growth, picking apart a well-connected defense and beginning to understand how easy passing reads can be when you’re a 6’9 pull-up maestro with a distinguished feel for the sport.
The sort of in-season leap that potentially changes the calculus of his ceiling is unfolding. If Tatum is one of the NBA’s principal pull-up shooters, an All-Defensive Team mainstay, and a complementary playmaker rather than someone with predominantly milquetoast vision, he could legitimately assert himself as one of the 3-5 best players in the league down the line. Maybe he’s amid a brief statistical hot streak as a passer, but the tape suggests otherwise and lends credence to his scoring jump being accompanied by a distributing one.
Per 36 minutes in the regular season, Tatum averaged 5.8 potential assists, which tracks “any pass to a teammate who shoots within one dribble of receiving the ball.” Against Toronto, that mark has shifted to 9.9. On various occasions through the first three games of the series, Tatum executed passes that caught me off-guard and coaxed out a holler of excitement. Witnessing players undergo developments in real time is a fascinating life experience. Tatum is realizing the attention he commands as an on-ball creator and leveraging that into a simplified game for his teammates.
It isn’t as though he merely reviewed hours of film, hunkered down in the gym, mastered one type of pass, and wired into his robotic decision-making the sort of skill development coined as “learned” or “trained” reads. Tatum is surveying the court and whizzing passes how he deems fit. Sometimes, he’s proactive in his play-making. Other times, he’s reactive.
Investing too heavily in a three-game sample would be short-sighted, but that’s not what this is. Gradual strides have coalesced at a crucial point in Boston’s season. While the foundation was laid months ago, it seemed ambitious to expect such rapid implementation. That’s especially true against this opponent and coaching staff, in which flashes are no longer solely that. They’ve seemingly been downloaded into his offensive toolkit as something defenses must game plan against moving forward.
There have been three primary means of distributing from Tatum during this stretch: interior reads, kick-outs, and skip passes. The kick-outs are fairly mundane, more valuable than eye-popping. He’s attracting the pupils of multiple defenders in pick-and-rolls, face-ups, or as a zone-buster and making timely, easily discernible decisions to generate efficient shots. Consistently manipulating scoring gravity is an important trait for any initiator, even if it’s far from the headlining aspect of his discovery. A handful of the interior reads and skip passes, meanwhile, resemble a metamorphosis, rather than a logical, connective upgrade from one step to the next. He is learning on the fly, adapting to his recently acquired stature of fear-invoking scorer.
Whether it’s being more daring as a handler or drawing attention from a sea of bodies, he’s conveying a concerted effort to remain an offensive threat in a congested lane. Long an underwhelming finisher inside, Tatum has a tendency to try and unsuccessfully plow through bigger defenders, avoid contact with awkwardly angled layups/leaners, or burp up foolish floaters. By functioning with greater discretion and patience, cognizant of the possibilities that do not include chasing his own shot, he’s showcasing an increased playmaking capacity.
Within this interior reads classification, there are two sub-divisions: A standard over-the-top lob and a more complex decision requiring a heightened degree of risk. The lobs are here. They’re not worth analyzing in-depth, but still deserve to be highlighted…
…And the riskier ones — which are most pertinent through a long-term looking glass — are here, supplemented by analysis.
Despite having his handle disrupted, Tatum shakes Pascal Siakam off the dribble in semi-transition, prompting rotations from Marc Gasol and Kyle Lowry. This leaves him with openings for a lay-down pass to Robert Williams inside or a kick-out to Marcus Smart. OG Anunoby is late sliding in to deter the lay-down pass, so Tatum wraps the feed around Gasol’s left side, making it more challenging for Anunoby to get his paw on the ball and break up the play.
The patience and snappy decision-making are what stand out. Tatum has often struggled in that intermediate part of the floor, but remains controlled and isn’t flustered when Gasol steps into his airspace. He punctually adjusts and plops the pass into Williams’ mitts rather than being hardwired into a contested shot for himself.
Smart zips past Fred VanVleet, sparking a scramble of rotations from the Raptors. Tatum beats the Lowry closeout and, again, is confronted with two passing outlets: up top for a Smart three or inside to Daniel Theis. VanVleet aims to account for both decisions because Tatum freezes him by staring down Smart before threading it to Theis, though VanVleet recovers and swipes the ball out of bounds.
The optical manipulation is crucial. If Tatum stares down Theis, VanVleet will recognize that and cut off the pass. This would leave Smart as the option. There’s nothing particularly incorrect about producing an open three for him, it’s just that attempts at the rim are more efficient and valuable. Tatum’s craft doesn’t result in a basket, but the process is quite sound, which is key from a long-term standpoint.
Among the three passes, this is the gold standard of the bunch. Part of Tatum’s scoring evolution in 2020 stems from newfound mastery and cadence in pick-and-rolls, which is exactly what occurs on the assist above. He rejects the screen, retreats once help arrives, uses the screen, occupies Gasol, and curls the live dribble, off-hand pass to Theis on the roll before a stunting Lowry can force Tatum to pick up the ball. VanVleet likely expected to have more time on his rotation or that it wasn’t needed, so Theis thunders home the dunk.
At least in a measured sense, it is difficult to overstate the optimism of this clip. Tatum won’t immediately begin whirling live dribble, off-hand passes in traffic with regularity, but the timing and execution portend well for his future as a facilitator. This isn’t a learned or trained read. It’s an astute, impromptu processing of the possession, indicating that more repetitions, ones he will undoubtedly receive, could empower him to cook up other passes delivered by talent and feel.
Much of the interior passing was yielded from advantage creation situations when he operated in a secondary role on the given play. The set of skip passes below are Tatum optimized, spearheading pick-and-rolls or self-creation chances, conscientious of his on-ball magnetism and spraying dimes across the hardwood to open shooters.
Tatum’s 6’9 build places defenders in a bind because it is more challenging for them to prevent larger guys from reaching preferred spots on the floor that warrants help or brings about wandering eyes, leaving someone else open. Aside from demanding traps, hedges, or aggressive stunts because of pull-up shooting gravity, this is primarily how Tatum wins on the ball. He is overwhelmingly long and tall, despite lacking requisite functional strength and sporting a handle encumbered by pesky limbs. Both the frame and off-the-dribble scoring threat help manufacture passing windows for him. As of late, he’s climbing through those windows with two-handed kick-outs and live dribble skips, ensuring there is a routine butterfly effect of his scoring prowess.
Within the broad collection of perimeter-oriented passes exist a handful of individual plays worth examining, illuminating the manner through which he is thriving.
Boston employs a high, side pick-and-roll for Tatum and Theis. VanVleet aggressively rotates to combat a pocket pass and tag Theis, who opts(?) to pop for three. Tatum, whose height enables him to seamlessly scan the entire floor, fixates on Grant Williams in the corner, spinning VanVleet into a tizzy, and rifles a live dribble skip to Smart for a walk-in triple. Perhaps Tatum is a beat late with the pass, but he also uses that time to sell the corner read.
This is manipulation and guile usually reserved for premier initiators, a stratum he appears headed toward. The fact he so effortlessly transitions from dribble to pass matters a whole lot, too. Seeing reads and making them is one puzzle piece. Carrying them out in the fashion and time Tatum does punctuates the play.
One of the clips most emblematic of Tatum’s refined approach as a creator is this. Lowry wiggles over the screen, Gasol shows above the arc to eradicate any inclination of a pull-up three, and the two funnel him into a precarious spot near the basket. Williams isn’t open for a drop-off pass and any Tatum shot attempt would be a low-efficiency proposition. The only lane to an open look is a skip pass. He has the vision and physical tools to inhabit that lane, and lofts the ball over four Toronto defenders to Jaylen Brown in the corner. If Brown shoots upon the catch, it’s an open triple, with Siakam scurrying back to close out.
The patience to remain composed, even with Lowry breathing down his neck and Gasol well-positioned, resonates. Busting out the counter of a spin move to forge a slight advantage against Lowry, which brings Gasol to him, guarantees a full help rotation from Anunoby. It leads to an open Brown in the corner and is the sort of subtle, paramount decision that primary initiators frequent.
Again, Tatum demonstrates court awareness and how his size alleviates some pressure as a passer. He finds a sliver of space against Anunoby, spurring Serge Ibaka to step up and protect the rim, while Lowry concerns himself with a potential drop-off pass to Williams. A double seems imminent and the lone teammate open is Brad Wanamaker, so Tatum sends the cross-court laser. Lowry takes a poor angle on the recovery and Wanamaker kisses a runner off glass.
One of his long-standing deficiencies as a creator is the lack of a paint game. He doesn’t have a floater to sprinkle in and prefers finesse finishers rather than embracing contact or drawing a foul. By audibling with a pair of skip passes on the previous two clips, Tatum circumvents these barricades, showcases maturation as a passer and maintains equity in his burdensome offensive duties.
While Tatum still must incorporate a floater into his arsenal and master the dark art of garnering gimmicky fouls (he’s trying very hard to do so recently) to accentuate his scoring development, this postseason passing display holds significance. He’s amplifying the value of his scoring, solidifying his standing as a bona fide initiator, and helping the Celtics march toward an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Each storyline contributes to a run that reshapes who he can become, perhaps attesting he is great enough to be the guy on a championship winner, a conclusion most did not envision prior to this banner 2019-20 campaign.