BOSTON — Let’s not bury the lede here: Jayson Tatum was awesome on Sunday night. He scored a career-high 39 points, highlighted by an absurd 22-point fourth-quarter eruption that ensured the fans would get their much-desired Tacko Time.
Tatum added 12 rebounds and three blocks as the still-dinged up Celtics emerged with a 119-93 triumph over the visiting Charlotte Hornets.
Everyone said really glowing things about Tatum after the game, including Kemba Walker, who was perfectly content to watch the 21-year-old go nuts on a night Walker’s former team was in town.
“He was on fire,” said Walker. “Me, personally, I love to watch it. I know what it feels like to be in that kind of zone. So I was just excited. I just wanted to keep getting him the basketball, to tell you the truth. I just kept telling him, 'Just keep on shooting. Try to get 40.’ That's what it was about. When you're feeling like that, you just have to keep letting them go.”
But Walker wasn’t done.
"It’s early. Nobody ain’t seen nothing yet. He’s coming. He’s coming strong,” added Walker. "He’s a future All-Star in this league and I’m looking forward to watching him grow continuously. Yeah, man, as a player he’s definitely going to be one of the best in this league one day.”
That last part is what we really want to talk about here. We have this propensity to fawn over players after big scoring nights and understandably so. Tatum topping his previous career-high in scoring by 5 points and making a near-40-point night look kinda breezy is certainly reason for excitement.
But the reason Tatum has a chance to be “one of the best in the league” is his overall impact on the game. Even as his shot has defied him early in the season, particularly on finishes around the rim, he’s still been vital to Boston’s overall offensive success. The team’s offensive rating is 113 when he’s on the court and dips a full 10 points when he’s on the bench (only Kemba Walker’s on/off splits are more pronounced on that end).
It's Tatum’s defense that really distinguishes him. He gives the Celtics the utmost versatility with both his size (6-foot-9) and length (6-foot-11 wingspan). He can switch onto smaller players and cause turnovers with active hands, or he has enough size to bump with bigs.
When the conversation turned from Tatum’s offense to Tatum’s defense during Brad Stevens' postgame media conference, the coach lit up. Stevens doesn’t like heaping praise on his players, often erring on the side of growth mindset and praising the work they’ve put that led to their advancements. But he wasn’t bashful about celebrating Tatum’s defensive efforts.
“I can’t believe it’s not talked about more, how good he is defensively,” said Stevens. "I think, for whatever reason, that gets lost in the shuffle. How much effort he’s been playing with all year has been like — he’s really become a great defender. His length. He chases balls, he challenges shots. He gets his hands on balls or keeps them in their mind that he’s behind them with that length. And then he’s a great rebounder from the wing.
"So he’s a really good defender. He’s a big reason why our defense is where it is as a team and we need him to keep continuing to be at that level.”
The Celtics, pegged to plummet in the post-Horford/Baynes era, now own the fifth-best defense in the NBA while allowing 103.6 points per 100 possession. Quantifying an individual player’s defensive impact can be tricky and much of the defensive metrics publicly available tends to be noisy.
But take from this what you will: The NBA’s defensive tracking data, as measured by the cameras mounted in all 29 arenas, has Tatum holding his defensive assignments to 36.9 percent shooting this season, or a whopping 8 percent below those players’ average for the season. As a means of comparison, Kawhi Leonard — widely regarded as maybe the best perimeter defender in the NBA — is holding opponents to 38.1 percent shooting, or 8.5 percent below their season average.
Considering the level of talent that Leonard is tasked with defending on a nightly basis, that’s absurd. That Tatum is in the neighborhood, even if he’s not always checking the opponent’s best player, speaks highly of what’s doing.
Data-tracking website Cleaning The Glass offers a percentile rank of a player in various defensive categories relative to their position. Tatum ranks in the 89th percentile while fouling on only 2.3 percent of his team’s plays, and ranks in the 85th percentile while registering a steal percentage of 1.8.
Then there’s Tatum’s rebounding: He’s grabbing a career-best 7.1 rebounds per game and his rebound percentage is up to 9.7 percent overall (up 1.6 percent since his rookie season). While there’s a lot more pressure on Boston wings to rebound given the personnel that left, Tatum has been a willing glass crasher who again uses his size to get to those balls.
"He's been a good defender since he got here and I think he's just improved at the rate you would think that a guy in his third season should improve,” said Stevens, reeling in his praise a tiny bit. "His ability to guard guards off screens, especially off-ball screens and impact them with his length has been really important for our team defense this year. We can end up putting him on some of those guys so that Kemba is not in every single one of them.”
The 39-point nights are nice. But Tatum’s ticket to stardom is being able to impact the game beyond the point total.
"I’ve said it before, want to be one of the best players in the league at both ends,” said Tatum. "Guys like [Paul George] and Kawhi are really dominant on both ends. Been trying a lot this year to match my intensity on offense with defense.”
And he’s doing it.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Raptors, which tips off Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike and Scal have the call at 12 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.