Long after his team’s training camp practice had concluded, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens hopped on one of the treadmills perched high above the Auerbach Center courts.
Most players had already got in their post-practice reps and departed for the day. But two players remained. On one of the team’s two full-length courts was Jaylen Brown working with a couple of assistant coaches. On the other, Jayson Tatum.
Stevens fumbled for his iPhone.
"I took a picture for my 15-year-old [son, Brady] and [texted him], 'This is why,’” said Stevens. "That’s why they're growing, they’re getting better, they’re improving in every area, because of their desire to work."
That scene is more common than you might expect. Even as their stars have ascended -- Tatum earning All-NBA honors last season, Brown knocking on the door of All-Star status, both signing big-money extensions the past two years -- the young tandem is constantly pushing each other. Sometimes that’s a few turns of post-practice 1-on-1. Sometimes it’s both players hopping into the post-practice 3-point contest.
And sometimes it’s just seeing the other guy putting in the work on the adjoining practice court long after everyone else has punched out for the day.
"That’s just been an ongoing thing since I’ve been here,” said Tatum. "Often times, we’re two of the last guys to leave the facility. Seeing him work, and vice versa seeing me work, and knowing that each of us have our own individual goals and what we’re trying to accomplish, and how we’re trying to get better. But just realistically knowing that we need each other. How great I want to be and vice versa.
“We’re going to be here for a while. We’re going to need each other and we’ve talked about that plenty of times. I’m excited. Obviously, he took a big leap last year. Gonna need him to take an even bigger leap this season. I want JB to be as special as he can be. He works hard at it. I got no doubt that he’s going to get there.”
Even newcomer Tristan Thompson marveled earlier this offseason at the obvious bond between Tatum and Brown. On many teams, star players coexist but don’t always cooperate. It’s different in Boston.
"It’s been great, to be honest. Having somebody that’s definitely as motivated and driven as you is dope,” said Brown. "Jayson is definitely somebody who wants to be great. Just to play alongside somebody that has that mentality is fantastic. Hopefully that translates into winning, to hanging some banners.
"I’m grateful for this experience and for the journey. I’ve learned a lot along the way from people around this organization and I can’t wait to see what I learn next, man. It’s dope. It’s all about -- for me, it’s all about the learning process and getting better. It’s all about the journey.”
The journeys of Tatum and Brown have delivered them here: The focal points of the 2020-21 Celtics. It’ll almost certainly be that way for the next half decade as nothing is as vital to the Celtics’ success as that duo continuing to blossom and push each other to new heights.
And even the longest-tenured player on the Celtics’ roster is on board with that.
"It’s tremendous to watch,” said Marcus Smart. "We knew playing with those guys the potential they had before they came out and showed it. It’s not surprising. They continue to get better.
The spotlight is nothing new for Tatum and Brown. When Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were injured during the 2018 playoffs, it was that duo that nearly willed the Celtics to the Finals. The Jays have saved some of their best basketball for when the spotlight is brightest.
So even as the wattage increases again this season, they seem unfazed.
“It’s no pressure. I don’t think it’s nothing I’ve got to do that I haven’t normally done. Just continue to be Jaylen Brown, continue to be Jayson Tatum,” said Brown. "But definitely another level of responsibility, another degree of responsibility that comes with it. Now you’re responsible for making others better. Now you’re responsible for creating a culture and a dynamic in the locker room to make sure that the culture of having a championship mentality and winning. All of those variables, adding to that, and those components, is our responsibility to make sure that everybody is on the same page. I look forward to that.
"That’s part of being a leader, that’s part of leadership. In terms of just performance on the court, basketball is still basketball. I love this game. I love everything that comes with it. With another degree of responsibility, it just adds other degrees of you being able to show the world what you’re capable of doing.”
Echoing what Stevens has long stressed, Tatum wants others to feel empowered on this team, even with more responsibility on his plate.
"Internally, you take more responsibility as you get older, more mature. I don’t necessarily say I’m the leader, this is my team. That’s never my approach,” said Tatum. "We all play for the Celtics. And we all have a job to do. Some guys have different roles but we’re all on the same team. That’s my approach. Everybody’s got a job to do for us to get another championship.”
Stevens loves that Tatum and Brown lead by example. That scene from the treadmill showed it. He can challenge each of them to improve a couple small areas each year and he knows they’ll embrace it.
“You can give those guys a goal or two every year and they will meet it,” said Stevens. "That’s just it. They will meet it. When guys of their caliber are able to focus on something, then they break the narrative. They figure out a way to become better at that.
"What I am most impressed with is their desire to work. And their desire to get better.”
For Tatum and Brown, it's their team now. And they are ready to lead this team forward.
Key themes for the 2020-21 Boston Celtics
* Survive and advance: Without Kemba Walker out of the gates, the Celtics are going to need Tatum and Brown to be great in order to keep this team afloat. The schedule is challenging but the Celtics must operate with a goal of getting everyone healthy (especially Walker) then producing their best basketball when it matters most.
* Making moves: The Celtics will navigate the season with the $28.5 million trade exception generated from delivering Gordon Hayward to Charlotte. Because they used the full midlevel to sign Tristan Thompson, the Celtics are hard-capped and likely desire to stay under the luxury tax completely. That could complicate trade dealings but the team is going to have an ability to add impact talent along the way. It’s critical the team maximize the exception to fill some voids left by Hayward’s departure.
* Player development: The Celtics need to figure out what they’ve got in their youngest players. No one really kicked down the door in an abbreviated preseason slate. Can Grant Williams thrive in bigger minutes? Can Robert Williams develop the defensive discipline to stay on the floor? Can Romeo Langford stay healthy enough to emerge as a rotation presence? The Celtics need cheap, young pieces to aid their core but also need desirable talent they can move in any dealings involving the Hayward TPE.
As we noted in our bold predictions, Tatum might need to muscle his way straight into the league MVP conversation if the Celtics are going to keep their heads above water early in the new season. But last year’s on/off data emphasized just how important Tatum is to the overall success of the team. If he takes even a small leap after what he did last year, he might just assert himself as a top-10 caliber player.
Slow out of the gates due to a combination of health woes and a brutal schedule, the Celtics surge late to finish 42-30 overall and fourth in the Eastern Conference. A brutal playoff path emerges — maybe something like 5th-seeded Sixers, top-seeded Bucks, second-seeded Nets? — but Boston manages to get back to the conference title stage. How that unfolds might hinge on the progress of Tatum and Brown, and the health of Walker.