Celtics Report Card: Jayson Tatum's star on the rise
Who’s the best Boston Celtic?
The question, spawned from a newsroom debate during Boston’s gritty road win over Oklahoma City Thunder then lobbed at me during NBC 10's Boston Sports Live show on Sunday night, left me considering the answer a lot harder than I previously might have.
It had to be Kemba Walker, right? The now four-time NBA All-Star and lynchpin of the Celtics’s offense. Boston’s offensive rating is a staggering 116.8 when Walker is on the floor and nosedives to 106 when he’s not. For context, the Celtics would lead the NBA in offensive rating if they could maintain that mark while Walker is on the floor, and would be tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 24th mark in the NBA without him.
But watching Jayson Tatum blossom over the past month, you can at least argue that Walker has competition for the best-player title — and quicker than most probably expected. With the Celtics enduring perpetual injuries (even Tatum missed three games with a groin strain), Tatum has taken his play to new heights. He’s validated his All-Star nod and looks like someone on a path to becoming one of the league’s elite two-way players. In the bigger picture, the fact that you can even have a best-player debate is important for Boston’s title chances moving forward. The franchise’s ability to compete hinges directly on what both Tatum and Jaylen Brown become with Walker as their runningmate.
What we feel a bit more comfortable about is elevating Tatum back to the top spot in our Celtics player power rankings. Tatum had the top spot early in the year, Walker muscled it away around the midpoint of the season, and now, as the Celtics motor towards the All-Star break, it’s Tatum who again takes the baton based on his recent play:
1. Jayson Tatum (Last: 2 ⬆️)
Jayson Tatum flirted with a headband near the start of the calendar year but brought it back as a full-time accessory against the Lakers on January 20. Since then, the Celtics have ripped off eight straight wins when he’s been on the floor. For the season, #HeadbandTatum is averaging 25.4 points while shooting 471. percent from the floor and 45.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc in nine appearances. Add in 6.7 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1 block per game for #HeadbandTatum, who is plus-116 for those nine games. Is the headband the key to Tatum’s success? Probably not.
For the season, he leads Celtics regulars in net rating at plus-11.8 and remains Boston’s only player in the negative for net rating when he’s off the court. The best part of Tatum’s recent play: He can have a quiet first quarter like he did in Oklahoma City, and then, when the Celtics needed a lift, he took over in the second half and played with the killer instinct that he's lacked at times early in his career. That might be the biggest maturation of all — playing like someone who knows they are one of the NBA’s best.
2. Kemba Walker (Last: 1 ⬇️)
Walker, who battled both illness at the start of January and, later, some lingering knee soreness, saw his efficiency dip a bit recently. Since that Lakers games where Tatum started his launch, Walker is shooting just 40.5 percent from the floor (though he’s still at a blistering 40.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc in that span).
Here’s the best part about Walker, though: He can be fighting his shot a bit and, when the Celtics desperately need a clutch basket, he’s the one hitting big shots. Sunday in Oklahoma City, Walker hit two triples 29 seconds apart to give the Celtics some much-needed breathing room. Walker scored 10 of Boston’s final 13 points over the last 5:44 against the Thunder. For all the growth of the Jays, it’s quite a luxury for this team to be able to lean on Walker in crunch-time moments.
3. Gordon Hayward (Last: 4 ⬆️)
Here are Hayward’s numbers over the last 10 games: 19.1 points on 51.9 percent shooting, including 47.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc, with 7.9 rebounds and 3.9 assists over 34.4 minutes per game. For all the laments about his injuries — a broken hand derailed a fast start and then he battled a nerve injury in his foot before he returned on Christmas — Hayward has been Boston’s healthiest starter during this recent grind and has quietly been excellent. The Celtics’ net rating with Hayward on the floor in those 10 games is plus-14.4, including a 117.8 offensive rating. Not coincidentally, Boston is 9-1 in those games.
4. Jaylen Brown (Last: 3 ⬇️)
About the only thing that’s been able to slow down Brown since late December has been injuries. Twice named Eastern Conference Player of the Week since Christmas, Brown has been impactful whenever he’s on the floor. But he’s endured a right thumb sprain and multiple ankle sprains while missing five of the last 13 games, and his status is uncertain moving forward with sprains to both ankles. Despite the maladies, Brown is still averaging 21.4 points per game in his last 10 appearances His 3-point shooting has cooled a bit in that span but he’s really thrived attacking the basket (and hunting poster jams).
5. Marcus Smart (Last: 5 ↔️)
With all the offensive talent on the team, the Celtics don’t need Smart to be a scorer. When healthy, he can steady the second-unit offense with his playmaking, he creates transition opportunities with his defense and his outlet passing, and he always seems to make the big play when it matters most. Like against the Thunder, when he stripped Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the Thunder looking to force overtime in the closing seconds. Credit, too, to Smart for his versatility, elevating to the starting lineup, in different spots, whenever someone is out. All without a noticeable drop off in Boston’s level of play.
6. Daniel Theis (Last: 7 ⬆️)
Criminally undervalued by those that spent trade deadline week begging for an upgrade at the center position, Theis continues to be a positive. Put it this way: Theis and Walker have the same on-court net rating (plus-8.3) with Theis content to play solid defense and take shots when they come in the flow of the offense. The Celtics’ defensive rating with Theis on the court is 103.4, or more than 2 points better than their season mark which ranks third in the NBA. If Theis could ever get a whistle — on either end of the floor — he’d be even more efficient. Still, the Celtics have one of the NBA’s top five-man lineups with Theis in the starting five and he’s really made strides working against beefier bigs this season.
7. Enes Kanter (Last: 6 ⬇️)
A badly bruised hip cost Kanter five games recently, but he has been a rebound magnet whenever he’s on the floor. He’s able to clean up a lot of the second-unit misses and gives Boston a needing scoring jolt off putbacks alone. With 40 games under his belt, his defensive rating is still an impossibly low 102.4 this season and his net rating of plus-11.2 is second best on the team among regulars, trailing only Tatum (plus-11.8).
8. Brad Wanamaker (Last: 8 ↔️)
Few things are in the NBA are as unstoppable as Transition Wanamaker, who averages a robust 1.26 points per play on transition opportunities. Among players with at least 1.5 transition attempts per game, Wanamaker ranks 20th in the NBA. It’s the second best mark on the team behind only Hayward (1.32).
Nearly a quarter of Wanamaker’s total offensive attempts come in transition, according to Synergy tracking data. The 30-year-old NBA sophomore continues to be a steady presence and he’s up to 18.7 minutes per game this season. We’re curious to see how much of a playoff role he’ll have, but he’s certainly got coach Brad Stevens’ trust.
9. Grant Williams (Last: 10 ⬆️)
Call him Big Smart or Mini Kanter or Baby Draymond, the undersized Williams has typically made good things happen when he’s on the floor, as evidenced by a net rating of plus-9 (including a super stingy defensive rating of 101.4 in his 785 minutes).
Yes, he has rookie lapses and there’s been some rough defensive stretches, and yet Williams tends to mitigate those with his hustle, grit, and basketball IQ. Again, the big question is how much Stevens can lean on a rookie in playoff minutes and some of Williams’ playing time could be dictated by whether Robert Williams re-emerges as a rotation big.
10. Semi Ojeleye (Last 9: ⬇️)
Ojeleye was a healthy DNP with Boston closer to full strength on Sunday in OKC, but Stevens loves to lean on him to combat an opposing team’s size up front. Ojeleye had a nice stretch starting in early January and made 34.5 percent of his 3-point attempts over an 18-game stretch before missing 5 of 6 against Atlanta on Friday night.
Playoff matchups could make him a rotation presence if the Celtics want to throw him on players like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Philly’s bigs. But his minutes will be a bit more inconsistent when Boston has all of its wings during the regular season.
11. Romeo Langford (Last: 12 ⬆️)
A random start against Orlando with Boston dinged up allowed Langford to showcase his two-way potential. He was excellent in 28 minutes, then produced a three-block effort in similar minutes against Atlanta. Langford came back to Earth a bit in Oklahoma City but will need to stay ready for minutes when Boston’s depth is thinned. If nothing else, it was a small glimpse of why the Celtics are incredibly high on Langford and what he can become.
12. Javonte Green (Last: 11 ⬇️)
Green made the most of his opportunities while the team was shorthanded, but Langford’s emergence and a healthier lineup could make minutes harder to come by. Green didn’t have a field goal in any of his last four games, missed a game because of knee soreness, and has two recent DNPs. Like the rest of Boston’s young wings, he just needs to stay ready and put a premium on defensive effort when he’s called upon.
13. Robert Williams (Last: 13 ↔️)
Sidelined since early December, it’d be easy to stash Williams at the bottom of this list. We can’t do it. He has the potential to be really important to this team once he’s back on the floor. And his first unrestrained workout in Oklahoma City on Sunday puts him on a path towards a post-All-Star return. Williams could vault up this list like him going up for an alley-oop slam if he proves capable of rejoining Boston’s three-headed monster at the center spot.
14. Vincent Poirier (Last: 17 ⬆️ )
Pretty much absent from the Celtics' rotation for a month starting in mid-December, Poirier’s gotten a handful of opportunities recently. There are a lot of strides to be made to be a more consistent presence and the return of Rob Williams could leave him as an emergency depth option.
15. Carsen Edwards (Last: 15 ↔️)
The Celtics are hoping some of these big nights in Maine can help Edwards’ confidence when he’s on an NBA court. But Boston’s perimeter depth makes it hard to see minutes outside of Stevens throwing darts and looking for a spark on nights his team doesn’t have it. Edwards needs to embrace Maine reps and hunt for ways to impact winning beyond making shots.
16. Tremont Waters (Last: 14 ⬇️)
Super steady in his early NBA glimpses, Waters had a rough night in Atlanta (three turnovers, four fouls in 14:20). He’s typically been a solid quarterback with plenty of potential. Unfortunately for both of Boston’s 2-way players on this list, they will be spectators when the playoffs arrive, though there will be opportunities for more NBA reps down the stretch of the season.
17. Tacko Fall (Last: 16 ⬇️)
Seeing Fall on the inactive list when a mediocre opponent is in town is still a bummer for fans at that night’s game. We got a couple of short glimpses of TackoMania against Philadelphia and Orlando recently but Fall’s getting key reps out of the spotlight in Maine. Fans inside TD Garden still buzz any time he appears on the JumboTron, even if it’s just an in-game video.