A couple of things happened this week that made me think of Jayson Tatum.
First, the Sixers signed Ben Simmons to a five-year max extension ahead of the final year of his rookie contract. Then, Bleacher Report put out its list of five breakout stars for the coming season, defined as players who had yet to become All-Stars but could in 2019-20. A command + F of "Tatum" yielded zero results.
Both things should jump out at you with regard to Tatum. If he plays his cards (basketball) right, he's getting a contract like Simmons', either next summer or at the conclusion of his deal.
But that list tells you at least some NBA observers don't see that happening, because that contract doesn't come unless Tatum ascends to the upper-echelon of NBA stars. We've assumed he would since his promising rookie season and subsequent playoff run, but Year 3 is the time for Tatum to actually start reaching for that ceiling.
What if it doesn't happen?
For starters, I'll cry myself to sleep every night, but this isn't about me. It's about the Celtics, who had one of the best players in the league and saw him mess up the team while he was here and the cap situation when he left.
The Celtics more or less need Tatum to become that level of star, minus the headache. They need a peer for Kemba Walker, one who could even surpass the UConn product in the prime years of his career.
That it didn't happen in Year 2 was frustrating. Tatum's points went up from 13.9 to 15.7 and his rebounds went from exactly five a game to six. Yet his player efficiency rating went down from 15.29 as a rookie to 15.13 in his second season, the latter of which ranked 138th in the league. The eye test didn't do major favors relative to expectations either, as his propensity for long 2s left everyone quick to angrily point to his offseason workouts with Kobe Bryant.
In the end, Tatum's second year looked more like Jaylen Brown's second year than most probably anticipated. He scored more, but Tatum's .450 field goal percentage and .373 clip on 3s were lower than Brown's marks (.465, .393, respectively) in his second year.
So, now the Celtics, having experienced a net loss of one star (Kyrie, Horford out; Kemba in), need another star. Ruling out Brown would be shortsighted, and I'm still not sure why so many have jumped ship completely on Gordon Hayward.
Yet, Tatum is the one that seems like the sure thing, and it hasn't happened all the way yet. If he doesn't become an All-Star-caliber player this season, what was once considered the luxury of Brown and/or Hayward becoming great will become a necessity if the Celtics want to make any sort of noise this season.
I think Tatum makes that step and becomes a fringe All-Star. Between his pedigree and his talent, it's seemingly within his grasp, but if he doesn't make that leap, it will hurt a hell of a lot more than it would had the Celtics been able to secure a multi-year commitment from Anthony Davis and/or Irving.
That longterm plan took a big hit this summer. Tatum's the guy who can put it back on track. If he does and the Celtics find any frontcourt help, the Celtics can set themselves up to be one of the top teams in the East for years. If his development stalls, the C's could be looking at either continued roster shakeup or years in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
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