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.
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.