BOSTON – Al Horford has called Jayson Tatum one of the most NBA-ready rookies he’s ever played with. Celtics coach Brad Stevens says he is wise beyond his years when it comes to defense.
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Even former Celtics legend Paul Pierce has chimed in about how good Tatum will be.
“He looks like an older version of me, when I started doing the step-back and stuff,” Pierce said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Boston. “When I’m watching him, he looks like a mature version of my game, like sixth, seventh, eighth year. He sees the defense. He knows what’s going to happen before it happens. He understands his position, footwork, his step-back [jumper] is there. His offensive repertoire seems complete. The sky is the limit for that kid.”
Indeed, there is no shortage of supporters for Tatum whose rookie season officially kicks off on Tuesday when the Celtics travel to Cleveland.
But with so much hype surrounding the 6-foot-8 rookie, what should we really expect from him?
There will be plenty of numbers tossed around as to what he should do.
The folks in Las Vegas set the over/under for his in points per game this season at 9.5.
He won’t play the kind of minutes a top 3 pick normally does as a rookie because of the Celtics' depth, yet he still manages to make the short list of most NBA experts’ top rookies to watch list.
Tatum, 19, tries to take it all in stride, knowing the hype train won’t be slowing down anytime soon when it comes to him.
He and I sat down and talked expectations shortly after he was drafted.
“The team goals or mine?” was his initial response.
This was telling, and to be frank, speaks volumes about his mindset heading into his first season.
“I’m just excited to play my first game,” he said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I can remember to just get drafted and play in [an] NBA uniform. I take it one step at a time. Not get too high or too low on expectations; just one day at a time.”
Staying in the moment has certainly worked for Tatum, who left Duke after one season to become the third overall pick in the draft.
The Celtics had the No. 1 overall pick but traded down two spots with Philadelphia and selected Tatum.
Danny Ainge, the C's president of basketball operations, said Boston would have taken Tatum with the top overall pick if they thought they could not have gotten him two picks later, along with a future first-round pick.
Regardless of what players and front office officials say, ultimately Tatum has to gain the respect with his play.
He came into the NBA known as a versatile scorer.
But it has been his play defensively that has caught the attention of his teammates and, more important, the coaching staff.
"His defensive potential has always been there," an NBA scout told NBC Sports Boston regarding Tatum. "But he was such a good scorer, made it look so easy, people didn't pay attention to the fact that he defended power forward-types pretty much all season at Duke but had the footwork to defend smaller players, if needed. So no, I'm not surprised that he has impressed the Celtics in camp with his defense."
Indeed, the praise for Tatum defensively has come from those that matter most: his teammates and the coaching staff.
“He's very savvy and very long,” Stevens said. “He uses his length. His arms are out and he gets his hands on balls and deflects passes and discourages drives just because of his length. He's done a good job for a young guy so far."
Tatum averaged a team-high 24.3 minutes per game in the preseason and did so with an impressive defensive rating of 86.4.
The praise he has received prior to being drafted often centered around his offensive game. But he knew that wouldn't be enough to play early on for the Celtics.
“I knew defense was going to get me on the floor, especially with this team,” Tatum said. “Everybody wants to play, so I knew I had to go out there and show coach I could defend.”