Where Jayson Tatum stands in quest to become an NBA 'superstar'

Where Jayson Tatum stands in quest to become an NBA 'superstar'

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.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Celtics Mailbag: Underperforming Celtics bench lets team down vs. Lakers

Celtics Mailbag: Underperforming Celtics bench lets team down vs. Lakers

The Boston Celtics traded haymakers with one of the league’s best on a national stage Sunday and nearly stole a win despite playing without their All-Star point guard.

From this vantage point, there was a lot to be encouraged by, not the least of which was 21-year-old Jayson Tatum being the best player on the floor in a game in which LeBron James was on the other sideline.

Yet, when we pulled the drawstrings on the Celtics Mailbag on Sunday night, there was a whole lot of angst. Most of the venom was directed at the officials — more on that in a bit — but poor Brad Wanamaker and his bench brethren found themselves in the crosshairs of angry fans, too. So let’s start this week’s edition there:

THE BENCH!!!! It’s a serious problem and, honestly, what does Stevens see in Wanamaker?!?!? — @ccsilva32

Danny Ainge needs to get these guys a legit bench. … You stood up for Ainge and his hoarding of picks, it's sickening you have to run starters into the ground for wins. — @nocap757

If anything frustrates me about this team, it’s a complete lack of a decent bench. Do they have potential? Sure, but that and $3 will get you a plain coffee. How far does this team go in the playoffs given 95% of their scoring is on the shoulders of the starters? — @cbrown4405

Bench scoring is a bigger weakness than size, IMO. What will the playoff rotation look like to deal with this issue? — @Tron731

Sunday wasn’t a banner day for Boston’s bench. Marcus Smart got elevated to a starting role in Kemba Walker’s absence; Enes Kanter played limited minutes given matchup troubles; Wanamaker had a rough night (0-for-4 shooting, 3 turnovers); and Boston’s five-man reserve unit ultimately went 3-for-11 with 11 points over 58 minutes of floor time.

For those who have clamored for a bench upgrade since the trade deadline, Sunday’s loss was another chance to scream, “See!” And news that the already deep Lakers were adding Markieff Morris off the buyout scrapheap only led to more consternation.

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Maybe the biggest question mark with the Celtics — beyond whether they can stay healthy when it matters — is who exactly is their 8th or 9th man in a playoff rotation? Can the Celtics lean on Wanamaker on a big stage? Can Robert Williams return and bolster the Voltron frontcourt with Daniel Theis and Kanter? Do the Celtics have to think harder about a buyout upgrade, and is there even anyone out there that can fill the team’s need for shooting in what could be a very limited role?

We’re intrigued to see more of rookie Romeo Langford, but he plays a wing position where Boston is already well-stocked. Still, his ability to create his own shot and play strong defense leaves us wondering if there’s enough time to build the trust needed for Stevens to lean on him in playoff minutes. It’s asking a lot for a rookie to contribute in the postseason, which is what’s working against guys like Langford and Grant Williams.

Ultimately, I’m not certain there’s a buyout addition currently available that would alter the trajectory of the Celtics’ season. As the Lakers, Clippers, and Bucks swoop up some of the more intriguing names, the Celtics might ultimately have to roll with what they’ve got and cross their fingers on health, all while hoping their rookies don’t shrink on a big stage.

Isaiah Thomas solves a bench problem. Wanamaker is not an answer to any question anyone has. If they are afraid of a circus, it's up to management to manage it. He could have been useful tonight. — @turkued1

With all the usual qualifiers, including that Thomas and the 2016-17 Celtics were the most enjoyable bunch to chronicle in my career, I just don’t see the fit with this team. Celtics fans romanticize the notion of what Thomas was and his ability to thrive on a team centered around his offensive exploits. But that opporutnity isn’t there now, and defense would be a major concern. Thomas still has his moments, but the Celtics don’t have the minutes or touches for him to truly thrive.

DeMarcus Cousins a possibility? Could the Celtics just claim him? — @c0_nun_drum

Even if Cousins gets healthy for the postseason, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect him to be able to contribute — coming off two major injuries — with zero in-season reps with his new team. 

What happened to Javonte Green? Seems to have fallen out of favor. — @Tantamount1

When the Celtics are healthy on the wing, it’s simply harder to find minutes. Stevens leaned on Semi Ojeleye initially and Romeo Langford Sunday for those wing minutes and Green is more of a depth option when the Tatum/Brown/Hayward combo is all healthy. It could also leave him vulnerable if the Celtics ultimately elect to seek a buyout upgrade (remember that Vincent Poirier has multiple years on his deal, making it tougher to swallow). 

Danny has no plan and has no interest in making this team a championship contender. — @DattilioBilly

Yup, beyond drafting two franchise cornerstones, hooking two All-Stars in free agency, and keeping the draft-pick surplus intact to ensure a long-term run as a contender, he certainly has no interest.

We can tell y’all are angry. Go ahead and vent on the officials:

Wyc should file a grievance — @KembaWalkerCBT

I’m not sure there’s a greater waste of time — and money — than filing a protest of an NBA game. But if Mark Cuban wants to spend $10,000 to make a point, so be it. Grousbeck and Co. should probably save their money.

Three things: 1. Ball out of bounds off AD with every announcer and fan seeing it but not the refs; 2. Jaylen called out of bounds when it wasn’t even that close so ref just made that up; 3. A clear goaltending is called, then reversed, because LBJ complained. That’s 2 points and 2 possessions. — @BobbyDlight14

Counter argument: 1. I didn’t think any of the views were conclusive enough to overturn the call on the court and only the back angle seemed to suggest Davis tipped it out; 2. Referee probably figured if he was out of bounds and Brown was bumping into him, he had to be out, too, but this was a tough whistle; 3. Brown appeared to goaltend defending a layup attempt after a whistle so it might have evened out there.

That last 2 minute report will be interesting. Certainly don’t expect it will make Celtics fans happier. — @rlbyrne29

:: sigh :: Totally forgot we’re going to have to hear all this complaining again Monday if the league admits any of the late-game calls were incorrect.

Let’s see what else people are angry about … 

Can Hayward not miss game-clinching layups? Or is it too much to ask from a $30 million per year player? — @stamosd308

Hayward did make a somewhat curious decision to push the ball up the floor in transition with Boston up 2 after a stop with a minute to go. If Kyle Kuzma doesn’t two-handed shove his way through a Daniel Theis seal to contest the layup, Hayward might have locked up the game. To his credit, Hayward admitted Boston would have won if he hadn’t “smoked a couple bunnies.” Let’s remember that Hayward has been maybe the team’s second best player behind Tatum in this stretch where Boston has won 12 of 15. 

Why did Stevens sit Tatum for so long to start the fourth? He scored 35 points in the previous two quarters. Ride the Hot Hand. — @ChrisKelleyUSA

Stevens rode the hot hand in the third quarter and tried to buy some extra rest early in the fourth when Boston had the lead. Not sure it mattered all that much. The Celtics didn’t do a great job adjusting to the Lakers blitzing Tatum late and that has to be a focus if teams do it more often.

Now, it wasn’t all doom and gloom, and some readers shared our glass half-full outlook.  A few to balance this thing out: 

I’ve never felt better about a loss. We just went toe-to-toe with arguably the best team in the West and lost a close game, which we could’ve/should’ve won without our starting point guard. — @WBrown1984


Honestly I’m just psyched for the future of one Jayson Tatum. — @john9668

(nodding emphatically)

Beyond the obvious Tatum growth and Jaylen never shying in big moments regardless of outcome, I’m loving the defensive efforts I’m seeing from Langford. — @dangrant75

It’s easy to see why the Celtics were bullish on Langford even as he navigated all those early season injuries. He could be a big-time contributor in future seasons.

Number 0 going up in the rafters in 25 years? — @iss_a_joke

Probably more like 20 years. They don’t wait around these days. But even in 2040, Deuce Tatum will be a fourth-year veteran for the Celtics when his 41-year-old father’s jersey becomes the first since Garnett to go to the rafters.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Trail Blazers, which begins Tuesday at 9 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 10 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Grant Williams describes meeting Bill Russell at Celtics-Lakers game

Grant Williams describes meeting Bill Russell at Celtics-Lakers game

Any time the Boston Celtics play in Los Angeles, there are bound to be celebrities in the crowd. The Celtics and the Lakers have arguably the greatest rivalry in NBA history, after all, so watching them square off is a must-see event when both teams are good.

But on Sunday afternoon, there was one famous person in the crowd that caught the attention of Celtics rookie Grant Williams. That would be Celtics legend and 11-time NBA champion, Bill Russell.

Russell appeared at the game to watch the Celtics in action, but also wore a jersey to honor the late Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. And evidently, Williams took some time to talk to Russell at halftime.

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After the contest, Williams communicated what his message to the NBA great was.

“I just wanted to thank him for everything he’s done for the game,” Williams said per Tom Westerholm of MassLive.com. “I said I was thankful, because he was so impactful. He was a dude who was one of the best players in the game, a historic Boston legend, and honestly it was just good to see him in person for the first time. You see all the celebrities in LA and all this stuff, but I was more focused on Bill Russell than anybody else. Denzel was there, all those other guys, but Bill was special.”

And Williams also communicated that getting a chance to play in a Celtics-Lakers rivalry game in front of one of the best players of all-time was "really cool".

“It was really cool, especially a game of that magnitude and intensity,” Williams said. “Lakers vs. Celtics, something that one of the biggest rivalries in sports and playing against LeBron, it was fun. It was a competitive environment. Hopefully he enjoyed it.”

It's really nice to see that Williams truly appreciates NBA history and one of the greatest Celtics of all-time. He will surely remember this moment for a long time.

During his rookie season, Williams is averaging 3.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.0 assist per game while playing 15.5 minutes off the bench. The 2019 first-round pick could play a key role as a small-ball center for the squad as they gear up for a playoff run.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Trail Blazers, which begins Tuesday at 9 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 10 p.m. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.