Jayson Tatum’s Latest Step Forward, And More Musings Around The NBA

Ed. note: Every now and then, we’ll publish a piece from the Patreon account of our own Jackson Frank. This week, we’re running with his series of musings from around the NBA titled “To Be Frank,” in which Jackson identifies a number of trends in the league that have piqued his interest. If you’d like to follow along with everything he publishes, subscribe to his Patreon.

All stats are accurate before games played on May 1.

Bruce Brown, The Tiny Big Man That Could

This season, there is no offensive environment more conducive to experimentation and optimization than the Brooklyn Nets. They tout three elite ball-handlers and a bevy of floor-spacers, fostering a setting in which unusual players who do not adhere to a traditional mold can thrive, if needed (spoiler: it is).

Enter Bruce Brown, a defensive-minded, 6’4 guard who has netted just 29.9 percent of his 244 career triples. During his first year with the Nets, Brown has emerged a critical fill-in starter while their three stars rotate in and out of the lineup. And despite his wonky jumper, he’s excelling as a complementary offensive player, thanks to his own savvy and some creative offensive usage.

Often, Brown is stationed in the corner or wings, tracking events as they unfold, aware of how starkly defenders will ignore him to offer help elsewhere. To counter that, and operate in tandem with the immense gravity guys like KD, Harden, and Kyrie elicit, he’s become a cutting merchant, darting along the baseline or from the arc at the perfect opportunities for finishes.

Cuts are not the only method for Brown to generate assisted scores around the basket. The Nets have treated him as a pick man in ball screens. It’s typically as an outlet when defenses employ aggressive coverage to deter the pull-up threat of Kyrie or Harden. Those 4-on-3 sequences are a runway for the sprightly Brown to convert or create on the short roll.

Nearly 12 percent of his possessions are as a pick-and-roll roll man, per Synergy, where he ranks in the 78th percentile in PPP (1.255). Among 101 players with 40+ possessions this season, he is the lone guard and his 1.255 clip places him 17th.

According to Cleaning The Glass, a career-high 58 percent of shots are coming at the rim, where he’s converting a career-high 66 percent of his attempts (previous best was 54 percent). The spacing Brooklyn places around him on his cuts and rolls, and general team quality upgrade compared to his time in Detroit, are contributing factors, but Brown himself is molding himself to complement a title contender.

He is no longer just a pestering on-ball defender with scarce offensive utility. He is Bruce Brown, The Tiny Big Man That Could.

NBA, you have a Kelly Olynyk problem

The Houston Rockets are very bad. They’re 16-47, three games clear of any rivals for the league’s worst record. Cade Cunningham certainly might be in their future. But a jigsaw roster and focus on youth development have provided Kelly Olynyk the freedom to display his offensive versatility and credentials, just in time for free agency this summer, when he will be on the market.

In 19 games with the Rockets, he is averaging 18.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.2 steals on 70.7 percent true shooting (.587/.396/.881 split). Long a multifaceted big man, Houston is the platform for him to flourish and he is seizing the moment.

Thirteen percent of his offense is coming via post-ups, compared to 3.8 percent with the Heat pre-trade, per Synergy, and he ranks in the 92nd percentile. He’s crushing switch-heavy defensive schemes by punishing mismatches in the post with physicality and deft touch. Once an undersized guy latches onto him, the Rockets make it a priority to feed the sweet-shooting Canadian:

In pick-and-rolls, he’s a master at timing slips to the rim, knifing into openings amid Houston’s well-spaced offense:

And he even gets to wield greater self-creation savvy, whether it be the occasional pull-up long ball, a corkscrew finish or a keeper on a DHO (long a favorite of his):

Increased offensive usage has also established chances to derive playmaking from the attention he commands on a nightly basis. His 16.3 percent assist rate with the Rockets is the second-highest of his career. He’s threading dimes to cutters and spraying passes to shooters, serving as a viable, prominent fulcrum for the Rockets:

Every team in the NBA can bring joy while watching their games, you just have to find the reasons. Olynyk’s emergence as a versatile scorer and facilitator is high on the list for Houston. He is fun. I encourage everyone to watch this blossoming before the season concludes and Olynyk parlays this stretch into a lucrative, well-deserved contract on a new team asking less of him offensively.

Jayson Tatum, taking another leap

Jayson Tatum scored 60 points on Friday in a dazzling performance to lead his Boston Celtics back from a 32-point deficit against the San Antonio Spurs. It was a brilliant outing, yet as I watched through his 20 buckets, I was most impressed with his approach as a driver and interior scorer.

He had patience and craft, and played through physicality. These are sustained improvements that date back to well before his career-high explosion. Over his past 29 games, since Feb. 28, he has a rim frequency of 25.6 percent, where he’s converting 72.4 percent of his attempts. In the prior 28 games, his rim frequency was 21.7 percent and he was only shooting 60.6 percent there. So, not only was he struggling to pressure the basket, he was also failing to score at a high level around the rim.

A 25.6 percent frequency is still fairly low, but 72.4 percent shooting is borderline elite for a wing. It ranks 33rd among 180 players with 50+ shots in the restricted area over that span and 21 of the guys ahead of him are centers. For reference, his 60.6 percent clip ranked 130th among 189 within the same parameters.

Early in the year, and for much of his career, Tatum lacked a reliable plan on his rim forays. He’d bank on length to finish around defenders or burrow his head into them without any sort of counter once swarmed. Contact aversion was far too popular in his approach:

Over the past couple months, he is blending extension finishes and an embrace of contact. He’s simplifying his attempts by leveraging space creation or advantages with a functional East-West handle and applying his 6’10 frame to battle through contract. Fewer of his finishes are overly difficult. He can get off cleaner looks.

On the year, per Cleaning The Glass, he is shooting a career-high 67 percent at the rim, which ranks in the 71st percentile. This second-half stretch isn’t an aberration. It’s an entire half of his fourth year in his age-23 season. He is developing in-season, seemingly a hallmark of his at this stage.

The results are evident and encouraging, but most pertinent is how he’s producing them, operating with improved patience, guile and physicality. The pull-up 3 arrived last season. The ambidextrous, live dribble playmaking surfaced shortly before the 2019-20 hiatus and solidified itself in the bubble. Competent interior scoring is the next step in his development Since late February, it has come to life.

Every year, Jayson Tatum identifies necessary areas of growth and manifests them. This particular plotline is another natural evolution of his basketball journey and is critical to attain his ceiling as a scorer.