BOSTON — Practice was over and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was nowhere in sight.
The 6-foot-9 forward headed straight to the weight room immediately after the team’s post-practice huddle broke up.
Trying to bulk up a little bit, huh?
“Something like that,” Tatum said with a grin.
It makes sense for Tatum to try and get bigger in what many anticipate will be a really big, breakout-type season for the third-year forward.
And while much of the attention Tatum has drawn in the past often focused on his scoring, Tatum’s improvement defensively may be what takes his overall game to another level this season.
While no one expects Tatum’s defensive rating in the preseason (69.1) to hold up once the regular season starts, it is clear that he’s focused on elevating his play at that end of the floor akin to what we saw during his rookie season.
Acquired via trade with the Sixers on draft night in 2017, Tatum’s penchant for scoring was evident from Day One.
But with a roster that included Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford in addition to Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart, Tatum wisely figured out early that scoring was not going to get him on the floor as a rookie.
So the only way he would see time, was to prove his worth to head coach Brad Stevens as a defender, which Tatum readily admits was a bit of an adjustment for a variety of reasons.
“It’s a lot of things you have to learn,” Tatum said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports Boston. “It’s a whole new system, new terminology, a whole new way to guard … everybody in the NBA is so much more talented, so you have to pay attention to the scouting report. It’s a different ball game when you come from college. you really have to focus and pay attention to all the details.”
It certainly worked for Tatum during his first year in Boston.
“Jayson Tatum’s defense is beyond his years,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in 2017, Tatum’s rookie season. “He’s very savvy. He’s very long. He uses his length; his arms are out and he gets his hands on balls, deflects passes and discourages drives just because of his length. So, I think he’ll continue to get better and better.”
He was one of just three rookie forwards (Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers were the others) in 2017 who averaged at least 30 minutes of court time, with Tatum’s defensive rating of 100.8 being the best among the group.
But last season, one in which Tatum was being looked upon to be significantly more of a scorer, he averaged more points (15.7 compared to 13.9 as a rookie) but saw his defensive rating slip to 105.1.
Part of Tatum’s process now when it comes to improving as a defender, is to improve his strength.
Since arriving in Boston, Tatum estimates he’s gained about 10 pounds of muscle and now weighs 215 pounds.
We have seen the added strength at work during his time with Team USA as well as what he has done in the preseason with the Celtics.
But that added weight will also benefit him as a defender, with Tatum likely to play both forward positions this season and potentially some center depending on the opposing team’s lineup.
“I’m trying to be the best player I can be,” Tatum said. “Just trying to make a bigger jump from year to year and be a better version of myself.”
Indeed, Tatum’s statistics improved in several categories last season. In fact, most of his numbers were similar to Toronto’s Pascal Siakam who was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player last season.
But Tatum’s play last season, while better statistically in a number of categories in comparison to his first season, was roundly criticized in many circles and viewed as underachieving in others.
Tatum has said on more than one occasion that he didn’t play his best basketball a year ago, and is determined to make amends for that with what he and Celtics Nation are hoping will be a breakout system.
And the best way to do that is to make strides towards becoming a more complete, two-way talent for Boston.
“I want to be one of the best players on both ends of the court,” Tatum said.
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