Jayson Tatum made one of the most jarring in-season leaps in recent memory and, on the heels of an age 22 season in which he vaulted to both All-Star and All-NBA status, the lingering question is: What more can he do?
Ahhh, the perils of the NBA superstardom.
Call the Celtics’ 2019-20 season a disappointment because they failed to make the NBA Finals if you must but we’d submit that nothing was more important than Tatum’s ascension to the status of best player on a championship-caliber team. That positions Boston not only as a contender for the foreseeable future but also gives them an honest-to-goodness chance to actually raise a banner in the coming years.
That Tatum’s leap coincided with Jaylen Brown making a vault of his own only strengthens Boston’s position, even if the East should be a bit more prickly going forward. It’s easy to forget because of how much playoff basketball both of those young players have experienced but learning how to win on the big stage usually takes time. Steph Curry and LeBron James were both 27 when they won their first titles.
Tatum finished this year’s playoffs averaging 25.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. He shot 37.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc on 7.4 attempts per game. All while adding 1.2 blocks and 1 steal while logging a playoff-leading 40.6 minutes per game.
Consider those numbers for a moment.
Tatum was just outside the top 10 in scoring in the playoffs, one spot behind Jamal Murray. He was just outside the top 10 in rebounding, one spot behind James. Over the final eight games of Boston’s playoff run, his assist total spiked closer to seven dimes per game, which would have ranked seventh best in the playoffs, one spot behind Rajon Rondo.
Now imagine if Tatum hadn’t had a couple slow starts and creaky finishes in the conference finals. Those numbers might have been even more remarkable. Add in his solid defensive play, with his ability to disrupt with his length, and Tatum’s imprint was all over Boston’s playoff run.
Like any great player, however, the expectations will only grow. The challenge for Tatum now isn’t just to put up big numbers but to be able to carry this team on the biggest stages and come through in the biggest moments.
In the aftermath of Boston’s Game 6 loss, Tatum acknowledged the growing pressure of being THE guy on a title-contending team.
"It's not easy. It's tough. But if you want those expectations and you want to be that guy that's capable of doing those things, you got to go through some tough things, some up and downs, some stuff I can learn from,” said Tatum. "I feel I can learn a lot moving forward from this season, this series. I'll grow from it.”
Tatum doesn’t seem content to rest on his laurels. In the aftermath of his first All-Star nod, Tatum’s scoring exploded to the point where James was dubbing him an “absolute problem" after a late February duel in Los Angeles. He was the East’s Player of the Month as he made 30-point nights look like the new normal.
The encouraging part about Tatum’s postseason was that he elevated other areas of his game beyond scoring. He was relentless on the glass and his passing was even better than it had been earlier in the year. By the end of the playoffs he was flirting with triple-doubles and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see those become common, especially in big-minute games like the playoffs.
The next step in Tatum's game might simply be consistency and being able to impact the game every night without lulls. When Tatum went scoreless in the first half of Game 4 against Miami, it was so jarring that we all rushed to the conclusion that he must have a secret injury. Tatum responded by scoring 28 points in the second half but couldn’t save the Celtics, who dropped a heartbreaker and fell into a 3-1 hole.
The Celtics need Tatum to consistently impact the game and save his best basketball for crunch time. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, during Miami’s first rally from a double-digit hole, Tatum was 2-of-6 shooting in the final quarter and minus-10 in the frame. He missed all four shots he took in overtime as Miami stole the opener. In Game 2, Tatum took only one shot in the final quarter, and was just 1 of 3 shooting during a third quarter in which Miami roared back from another double-digit deficit.
Hone in on Tatum’s performance in postseason crunch-time situations — score within 5 points in the final 5 minutes of play — and he scored just 20 points on 5-of-21 shooting (23.8 percent) while making just 1 of 9 3-point attempts (11.1 percent). The Celtics were minus-13 in his 52 minutes of crunch-time play.
Now, the Celtics as a whole were terrible in crunch time. There needs to be better execution all around — as we detailed earlier this week — but the spotlight will shine a bit harsher on Tatum because he’s now the one this team looks for in those instances.
Tatum tried to will his team in those moments. Sometimes he was a little too hellbent on getting to the rim and got whistled for pushing off. He needs to find a balance between using his 3-point shot as a weapon in crunch time and making sure he’s attacking the rim and drawing fouls instead of committing them.
But let’s not lose sight here.
He’s still 22. Very rarely are players ready at that age to be the central figure on a title team. This summer, Tatum will sign the biggest contract in Celtics history with a rookie extension that will kick in after next season and lock in his status as the face of this franchise deep into the future. Danny Ainge’s challenge is surrounding him with the sort of talent that allows Tatum to further blossom.
Tatum’s challenge is to keep getting better. And to use the Miami series as fuel to show he’s capable of putting this team on his back when it matters most.