With the world watching, 23-year-old Jayson Tatum will make his Olympic debut on Sunday morning when Team USA opens pool play against France.
It’s easy to fixate on the negatives if you prefer to. Team USA doesn’t have the typical surplus of talent — though it’s far from deprived — and anything short of a gold medal will be viewed as a failure. The Americans stumbled through an underwhelming exhibition slate. Tatum had a quiet showing and sat out one game due to right knee soreness. Tatum’s childhood buddy Bradley Beal didn’t make the trip to Tokyo after entering COVID protocol at the end of Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas.
But Tatum has a more-than-golden opportunity in Tokyo. He will be a 23-year-old starter with a chance to assert himself on a global stage. Tatum might just be the future face of Team USA. And history suggests the Olympic stage can be a springboard for younger players on their road to NBA superstardom.
Tatum clearly understands the magnitude of the moment.
“I’ve learned to not take things for granted,” Tatum said during a Team USA Zoom call this week. "I think the climate of the last year and a half, just realizing that everything is not promised, and you never know what could or couldn’t happen. Just staying in the moment and enjoying this journey and process of being 23 and in the Olympics. It’s an honor and a dream come true.”
It’s been a year of frustrations for Tatum. Even as his NBA star has risen, the Celtics have fallen short of lofty expectations. Tatum battled COVID earlier this year, which might have ultimately cost him both a spot on an All-NBA team and a $32 million boost in his rookie extension.
But Tatum finished the 2020-21 season with a flourish. He put together four 50-point games, including tying Larry Bird’s single-game record of 60 points before a 50-point explosion in Boston’s lone postseason victory over the Nets.
No one could have blamed Tatum if he elected, as many NBA stars did, to sit out the Olympics this summer. Starting with the 2019 FIBA games, it’s been essentially 24 straight months of basketball for Tatum.
But he clearly understands the magnitude of the moment and the opportunity in front of him. He’s already gushed about getting to wear Kobe Bryant’s No. 10 Olympic jersey during the experience. As Team USA’s disjointed exhibition slate showed, the Americans are desperate for someone to carry this team at the 2020 Games. Even if more veteran players like Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard get the bulk of the shots, there will be a chance for Tatum to display his talents.
New Celtics head coach Ime Udoka is in Tokyo as well, affording the team’s new leader and his star pupil a chance to forge chemistry in the ramp to the new season. Regardless of how Team USA performs, the Celtics will benefit from Udoka and Tatum going through this experience together.
There is, of course, the opportunity for Tatum to befriend some of the league’s most talented players. Maybe that creates pathways to recruiting more talent to Boston down the road. Tatum said he simply wants to bring a gold medal back for his St. Louis buddy Beal.
More importantly, just being around players like Durant should aid Tatum’s growth. He can see how the truly elite operate and the sort of work they put into being great.
The Celtics will reap the benefits of Tatum’s experience overseas. Tatum will come back a better player because of his experiences. Win or lose, this is a more-than-golden opportunity for Tatum.