Celtics big man Enes Kanter had been reflecting on Jayson Tatum’s 2020 breakout and, even with plenty of downtime during quarantine to digest it all, he remained a bit flabbergasted at the speed in which Tatum morphed from borderline All-Star to one of the future faces of the league.
Kanter has played alongside some top-line NBA talent during his career. He was in Oklahoma City during Russell Westbrook’s MVP season. He was in Portland when Damian Lillard was coming off his All-NBA first-team nod. But the rapidity at which Tatum ascended to bonafide star this season left the typically chatty Kanter searching for the right words to describe what he saw.
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One thing Kanter made sure to stress was that Tatum’s leap wasn’t confined to the court.
"I remember him coming into the league, I knew he was a very skilled player. But now, this year, after I signed with the Celtics, I saw how good of a teammate he is, not just on the court but off the court, too,” said Kanter. "Some players go out there and score 30 points but they’re not leading their team. Tatum is doing an amazing job, on and off the court, keeping the team together. Just seeing him grow like that.
"Obviously, he’s got so much confidence after being named a first-time All-Star. It’s amazing to see him grow that way."
During a 17-game stretch starting with his All-Star announcement on January 30, Tatum averaged 28.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks over 36.3 minutes per game. He shot 47.7 percent from the field overall and 45.8 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
On his 22nd birthday, Tatum was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for February, a month in which he averaged an eye-popping 30.7 points over 12 games. A point threshold he only rarely crossed during the first two years of his NBA career suddenly became the norm. Tatum scored 30-plus points nine times from Feb. 5 until the season suspended, including a 41-point performance against the Lakers.
In the span of two months (TWO MONTHS!?), the conversation around Tatum shifted from, “Is he the Celtics' second All-Star?” to "Oh my God, LeBron James just nicknamed him The Problem.”
The suspension in NBA play has allowed everyone to sit back and process Tatum’s emergence. His skill and potential were never in question but the way he seemingly put everything together in such a short period of time, and played with a swagger that had been absent, remains astounding.
Teammates who have been around for the duration of Tatum’s NBA career will note that he's routinely showed himself capable of being a star. What they tend to marvel at isn’t necessarily this year’s leap but the fact that Tatum never gets complacent with whatever he accomplishes.
“He’s still so young but he went to the Eastern Conference Finals [in 2018], played basically an amazing playoff series, scoring-wise and everything, so he learned so much,” said Celtics center Daniel Theis. “He’s been through so much in his young career. Then, this year, Tatum getting voted an All-Star, it was an extra push, motivation to just stay hungry and keep going.
Maybe some guys would say, ‘I’m an All-Star now, I can relax and chill a little bit more.’ He kept going. That stretch he had when he scored, what, [nine] games of 30 points? He’s a scorer and he knows he’s one of the greatest weapons we have on the team.
Theis likes to joke that his signature seals helped unlock Tatum’s scoring by creating easy layups. But Theis has seen all the work that Tatum has put in to make those strides. Theis is convinced the sky remains the limit with the way both Tatum and teammate Jaylen Brown constantly yearn for more.
Said Theis: “[Brown] and JT, those two guys on the court at the same time with [Boston’s other talent] — it’s almost unguardable.”
Tatum has positioned himself for All-NBA consideration, especially if he picks up where he left off when the NBA season restarts next month in Orlando. A maximum-salary extension of his rookie contract awaits as early as this summer and a leap to All-NBA status could help drive the total value of that deal even higher.
Tatum is key to whatever the Celtics accomplish both this season and deep into the future. For all those big scoring performances, maybe the most notable number this season was how the team performed based on Tatum’s status.
The Celtics had a team-best net rating of plus-10.3 points per 100 possessions when Tatum was on the court. The next closest regular was a bucket behind (Kanter, plus-8.3). When Tatum was on the bench, Boston’s net rating dipped to a team-worst minus-1.0. He was the only player in the negative and the next closest was Gordon Hayward at plus-3.8.
Tatum altered his shot profile this season, turning some of those maddening long 2s from a year ago into high-percentage 3-point looks thanks to his now-signature side step. The Celtics have put the ball in Tatum's hands more as he ranks among the top 10 of all NBA players for isolation possessions per game (3.5 per game; Giannis and Luka Doncic average 4 possessions per game). Only Kemba Walker runs more pick and rolls per game (what’s more, Tatum is averaging 1.04 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, or the same as Doncic and Kyrie Irving).
Tatum must learn how to get to the line more consistently to ease his own scoring burden. His length allows him to get most any shot he wants but he can stiff arm the occasional shooting slump if he’s able to draw contact going at the hoop and get to the line more.
Maybe we’ll see that in Orlando. Tatum has had three months to digest his own progress. Even in quarantine you can’t rule out that he’s figured out new ways to advance his game.
Just look at what he did in two months earlier this year.