Celtics' title hopes hinge on Jayson Tatum's development

Celtics' title hopes hinge on Jayson Tatum's development

This Friday is Jayson Tatum Day here at NBC Sports Boston. Be sure to check out our exclusive content around Tatum throughout the day, both online and on the broadcast of Celtics-Timberwolves, which begins Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 8 p.m. You can also stream it on the MyTeams App.


BOSTON — The Boston Celtics’ championship hopes, now and for the foreseeable future, hinge almost exclusively on one thing: Jayson Tatum’s development.

With only the occasional outlier (hey there, 2004 Pistons), every championship team in recent memory has featured a bonafide superstar at the top of its roster. We’re talking an All-NBA first-teamer or indisputable top player in the league. For all the obvious individual talent the Celtics currently possess, their hopes of hanging an 18th banner requires one of the team's current core pieces to elevate to rarefied air.

Enter Tatum, the 21-year-old who just made his first All-Star appearance and seems on the path to NBA superstardom.

Tatum has emerged as a rare two-way threat, mixing elite offensive skills with burgeoning defensive impact. Last we saw Tatum in a game that mattered, fellow All-Star Kemba Walker proclaimed him the “best player on the court” during a thoroughly entertaining double-overtime win over the Los Angeles Clippers, who had Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the opposite sideline.

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Over his last 10 games, Tatum has averaged a robust 26.8 points per game while shooting 49.2 percent overall and 46.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Add in 6.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1 block over 33.6 minutes per game and Tatum might be muscling his way into the All-NBA conversation given Boston’s team success.

There’s little reason to believe that Tatum’s recent play is some sort of aberration. Still, the bigger question lingers: Just how good can Tatum be?

His teammates are admittedly a bit biased but are bullish on his chances to be truly elite.

"If he puts his mind to it, if he’s focused on what he needs to focus on, he can definitely be a Hall of Famer,” said Enes Kanter. “I think he’s a game-changer. The one thing about him, man, he just enjoys it. He’s having fun with his teammates. And he’s so young. I was in the locker room asking my teammates like, ‘How old are you?’ I asked [24-year-old rookie] Tacko [Fall] how old are you, and I asked [Tatum] how old?. He was like 21. He’s only 21! I was like, ‘Hold on, hold on, hold on. How old again? Wow, this is wild.’”

Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward have been around Tatum for his entire Boston tenure. They believe his potential is limitless when asked how good he can be.

"As good as he wants. He’s only 21,” said Smart. Informed that Tatum is a couple weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, Smart playfully added, "Nah, he’s 21. He’s a baby. He’s a BABY. He’s so young and yet he’s already accomplished so many things. And he still has a long way to go.

"That’s the uniqueness and the beauty about him and his game. No one can really say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s reached his potential, he’s reached his max.’ No one really knows the potential and how far he can go. For us, playing with him, and being able to see him grow as a player, and as an individual, has been everything.”

Echoed Hayward: "I think the sky is the limit. He’s got great size, athleticism, poise, he’s got all the skill sets — he can score at all three different levels. As long as he continues to work, I think the sky is the limit.”

Tatum’s teammates insist the next big step is simply consistency. Tatum has to play like he knows he’s the best player on the floor and maintain the killer instinct that's seemed far more present this year than in the past.

Kanter insists it didn’t take long for those around the NBA to identify that Tatum had star potential.

"I’ve been in the league for nine years, right? I remember the first time [going against Tatum],” said Kanter, whose Knicks traveled to Boston and saw Tatum’s first 20+ point game early in the 2017-18 season. "I remember playing against Boston and I’m like, ‘Who is this kid?’ He was killing everybody. He was what, 19? He just destroyed everybody and he played unbelievable and I was like, ‘This kid is going to be special.’”

Three years later, the question is just how special?

Celtics coach Brad Stevens likes to point out how, when you look at what Tatum is doing at his age, it compares to only a handful of elite players in the NBA history. Hammering home that point: The only players to reach the same statistical threshold as Tatum to this point of his career (at least 3,400 points, 1,100 rebounds, 425 assists, and 150 blocks) before age 22 were: LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, and Tracy McGrady. That’s a heck of a quartet to be associated with.

Tatum might be blossoming even earlier than expected this season, an encouraging sign for Boston’s chances to compete immediately. While his postseason exploits as a rookie certainly suggested star potential, the last few weeks only confirmed his All-Star status and hinted at future potential.

The encouraging part is the way Tatum has handled his recent successes. He’s repeatedly noted that the game’s elite don’t linger on what they’ve accomplished: They score 40 points and shrug it off like it was just another night at the office.

Tatum has areas of his game to shore up, including ball-handling when he’s attacking the basket. But he’s certainly shown he can improve on the fly. Tatum struggled mightily to finish near the rim at the start of the season but has a new confidence around the basket, often utilizing his length to finish over and around opponents. What’s more, he's made the side-step 3-pointer one of his trademark weapons. Tatum makes scoring 20+ per night look routine.

Go ahead and rank the top players in the Eastern Conference. You might be surprised how quickly you land on Tatum. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is the obvious No. 1 and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid is No. 2. Is Tatum already the third best player in the East? A healthy Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant might quibble with those rankings; so, too, might Pascal Siakam fans in Toronto. The fact that it’s even debatable is an encouraging sign for Tatum and the Celtics.

But Boston’s best path to legitimate title threat involves Tatum emerging as one of the surefire elite of the league. Maybe Boston’s perimeter depth is enough to compete for a title now in an NBA that’s more wide open than ever. Future seasons likely won’t be as forgiving. Teams are going to need top-line talent to truly compete.

The Celtics need Tatum to emerge as one of those players. The last few weeks suggest it can happen. Yes, everything is lining up for Tatum.

He’s got his All-Star nod. He’s got the big-time Jordan Brand shoe deal. This summer, the Celtics will likely offer a maximum-salary extension ensuring he’s the face of the Celtics franchise deep into the future.

The final step is simply proving he’s ready to be a star every night on the floor.

"Each year, he continues to grow and get better,” said Smart. "He’s maturing. He’s still a young kid but the responsibility and the roles that he’s able to take on — and, in the future, that he’s going to take on — it really shows the growth of him as a person and as a player. You gotta be proud of him.

“I believe (Tatum can be one of the NBA’s elite). I definitely believe so. Again, he’s only 21. And think about the things he’s already done in this league. He has a bright future.”

So, too, would the Celtics.

How well does 21-year-old Jayson Tatum compare to 21-year-old Michael Jordan?

How well does 21-year-old Jayson Tatum compare to 21-year-old Michael Jordan?

We know that Jayson Tatum is on the path to NBA stardom. But is he on a similar pace to one of the greatest players ever to play the game, Michael Jordan?

You be the judge.

Boston Sports Info (@BostonSportsInf) checked out the statistical comparison between Jayson Tatum and Michael Jordan during their 21-year-old seasons. And when looking at the numbers on a per 36-minute basis, they were relatively close in most major categories.

In addition to the numbers pictured, Tatum averaged 3.1 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.9 blocks per 36 as a 21-year-old. Meanwhile, Jordan got 5.5 assists, 2.2 steals, and 0.8 blocks per 36.

So, Jordan edged Tatum in most categories, save for Tatum's rebounding advantage and his ever-so-slight blocks advantage. Of course, it's worth noting that Jordan entered the league as a 21-year-old rookie, so he had no NBA experience while he put up these excellent numbers. Tatum had 143 games of regular-season experience and 19 games of playoff experience before his 21st birthday.

Regardless, the point is that Tatum is still developing very well and the fact that his numbers can even be comparable to one of the NBA's all-time greats is an excellent sign. He should continue to progress and should soon be one of the top players in the NBA if he continues on his current trajectory.

Tatum may not reach Jordan level. Few ever do. But the stats indicate that he's on the right track very early on in his career.

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Celtics Talk Podcast: Danny Ainge on why 63-point game was Michael Jordan's coming out party

Celtics Talk Podcast: Danny Ainge on why 63-point game was Michael Jordan's coming out party

Everybody knew that Michael Jordan was an excellent NBA player very early on in his career.

But was his 63-point game against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 1986 NBA Playoffs his coming out party? Current Celtics GM Danny Ainge seems to think so.

On the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast, Ainge discussed Jordan's 63-point playoff outburst from that series with Brian Scalabrine.

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In the interview, Ainge referred to the game as the moment that many realized that Jordan was "a really, really special player" even though everyone already knew that he was talented.

I think this was a coming out party, a little bit maybe like what Jayson Tatum had after the All-Star Game this year, this long stretch [of good play]. I think this 63-point game, 49 back-to-back games, was a coming out party for Michael as 'Wow, this guy is a really, really special player.' But we knew going in that he was extremely talented.

Ainge would certainly know. He was tasked with helping to guard Jordan late in the game, especially in the fourth quarter and overtime despite having five fouls. Ainge actually held up well doing that, but Jordan still beat him on occasion with his quickness to the hoop and insane scoring touch.

That said, it's also notable that Ainge is comparing Jordan's coming out party to that of Tatum. The third-year Celtic had emerged as a big-time scorer and one of the NBA's best all-around young players after the All-Star Game before the NBA shut down amid coronavirus concerns.

Certainly, Ainge isn't comparing Tatum to Jordan as a player. But the fact that he mentioned the duo in the same breath is still encouraging, and it should signify that Ainge continues to have confidence as the 22-year-old Tatum looks to continue to improve heading into the final year of his rookie contract in 2020-21.

To hear more from Ainge and Scal about the 1986 Celtics-Bulls series and Ainge's relationship with Michael Jordan, check out this week's episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast, available on the NBC Sports Boston Podcast Network and YouTube.