BOSTON — Jayson Tatum had a pretty good idea his jersey was popular even before the NBA confirmed it last week. A friend was in New Zealand recently and sent Tatum videos that showed a couple Kiwis walking around in Tatum’s No. 0 jersey.
When the Celtics are on the road, Tatum admits he often scans the crowd to see if he can find any of his shirts. Even as his NBA star rises, Tatum went so far as to call it his, “favorite thing to do,” and admits it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to see his jersey in rival arenas.
Last week, the NBA unveiled its top-selling merchandise for the first half of the 2019-20 season. Tatum landed at No. 4, trailing only LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Stephen Curry. That’s a trio with six NBA titles, seven MVP awards, and 24 All-Star appearances.
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But it’s the players that Tatum appeared ahead of that really floored him. James Harden? Kawhi Leonard?! Kevin Durant!?!?
"All the guys on that list, they’re 'superstars,' or looked at as stars,” said Tatum. "It’s great company to be in. I guess the fans like me.”
Tatum marveled that, of the roughly 500 players now on NBA rosters, fans are willing to plunk their money down for his jersey. His shirt is a big reason the Celtics ranked No. 2 in team sales, trailing only the Los Angeles Lakers, who visit TD Garden on Monday night.
We found it interesting that Tatum didn’t lump himself in the “star” category alongside the other 14 individual players that grace the list. Does he see himself as a "superstar?"
"That’s what I’m working towards,” said Tatum. “Obviously, those guys have accomplished a lot in the league and they deserve to be called superstars. I still haven't even made the All-Star game yet. Just taking it step by step, but it is something that I’m actively trying to get towards.”
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There is almost no denying that Tatum will soon check all the necessary boxes to assume the title of star. An important tick could come soon when All-Star reserves are announced. Even as Boston navigates a bit of a midseason swoon, Tatum has been one of the most impactful players on the roster and seems likely to join Kemba Walker (14th on that jersey sales list) in Chicago next month.
Still over a month shy of his 22nd birthday, Tatum has crammed an awful lot into his young NBA career. After an All-Rookie season, he nearly willed the shorthanded Celtics to the NBA Finals. His Game 7 dunk on James will be a career highlight no matter what he accomplishes. Tatum produced his first 40-point night of his career last week but is already downplaying the accomplishment.
"When I have big games, I try not to get too excited because, I say it all the time, the guys I looked up to, they do it often,” said Tatum. "I’m trying to get to that point where, when I do have a big night, it’s kinda like another night.”
Yes, that consistency is what separates borderline stars from the sure things. Tatum knows that a 40-point night against the New Orleans Pelicans doesn’t mean as much if he labors through 4-of-13 shooting against the Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia 76ers a couple days before it.
"I feel like everybody goes through it. Especially the guys that are the best and are kinda looked at that way when they first came into the league,” said Tatum, whom Boston nabbed at No. 3 in the 2017 NBA Draft after trading down from the top overall pick. "They expect more out of me and I expect a lot out of myself.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has often marveled at what both Tatum and fellow partner in (juvenile) crime Jaylen Brown have accomplished early in their NBA careers. Whenever the duo faces criticism for their inconsistencies, Stevens suggests reporters compare their body of work to other stars at the same age.
Stevens doesn’t put a lot of thought into jersey sales — his teenage son, Brady, has moved out of the jersey phase — but the coach understands why others would lean towards Tatum.
“It makes sense in this day and age with all of the movement: Buy a really good young player’s jersey,” said a smiling Stevens.
Yes, buying a Celtics jersey has been a dicey proposition in recent years. Even Tatum hasn’t been absolved from trade whispers (back when Lakers big man Anthony Davis was the object of Danny Ainge’s desire). Now it feels like Tatum is the key to whatever Boston accomplishes moving forward.
This summer, Tatum will be eligible — and likely receive — a maximum-salary extension of his rookie deal. It will lock Tatum and Brown in as the foundation of the team moving forward. But even while more established stars like Walker and Gordon Hayward are on the roster, what this team accomplishes likely hinges on what Tatum becomes.
In order to compete for a title, a team has to have an MVP-caliber player as its centerpiece. The current Celtics have a bunch of 1A-type players but their championship hopes strengthen if Tatum eventually ascends to the clear-cut best player on the team.
There’s strides to be made on the court. His ball-handling needs to improve so he can more consistently attack the basket, he needs to be better at finishing, his shooting percentages down this season. But the talent is obvious and it seems like only a matter of time before he puts it all together. The potential to be Boston’s No. 1 is there if he’s willing to work for it.
Everything else is lining up for him. The All-Star label is coming, and so is the contract. This past summer, Tatum signed with Jordan Brand, becoming one of the young faces of the popular shoe brand. Tatum’s also well-regarded around the league, as evidenced by how Walker sought him out for advice before joining the Celtics.
All signs point to Tatum as a superstar. Now he’s just got to prove it on the court, especially in those matchups where the surefire stars are on the other side of the court.
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