There are sky-high expectations for Boston Celtics starting power forward Jayson Tatum entering the 2019-2020 season. Will he live up to them?
Two years ago today, Jayson Tatum was just a wide-eyed rookie preparing for his first season of NBA action. At the time, it was unclear if the young forward would be a starter, or play a supporting role coming off the team’s bench.
Tatum would have little trouble establishing himself as an indispensable part of that Celtics team, though, as he turned in the best rookie season by a Boston Celtics’ player since Larry Bird in 1979-1980.
Playing in just over thirty minutes per contest in 2017-2018, Tatum would average 14 points, five rebounds, and over an assist per game. He shot 43% from beyond the arc, 47% from the field overall, and 82% from the charity stripe, proving himself to be an extremely efficient shooter.
Tatum’s three point field goal percentage was the highest of any Celtics’ player, not just a rookie, since the 2010-2011 season, when the best three point shooter in NBA history, Ray Allen, shot 44% for Boston.
But Tatum saved his best for last, when in the playoffs, he really began to shine.
During the 2018 postseason, Tatum emerged as the Irving-less Celtics’ leading man, averaging well over 18 points per game, and upping his assists per game to 2.7, while continuing with his highly efficient shooting. He set a Boston Celtics rookie record in scoring twenty or more points in seven straight playoff games and tied Donavon Mitchell for the second longest such streak in NBA history.
Tatum’s playoff excellence reached its height when the young forward mercilessly “posterized” Lebron James, the four-time NBA MVP, and a player well-known for his own poster worthy dunks (RIP Jason Terry). Anyone with a pulse who had watched those playoffs could see Tatum was destined for greatness, and most expected said greatness would be realized sooner rather than later. Yet in many ways, Tatum’s encore performance in 2018-2019 represented a regression for the young star.
What was holding Tatum back last year? And does this unknown entity threaten his success again in 2019-2020? Unsurprisingly, the answer to this question is it depends…
The biggest obstacle to Tatum having capitalized on his stellar rookie season may well have been a lack of opportunities. To begin with, highly-ball dominant, score-first point guard Irving returned from injury, monopolizing much of the team’s shots and touches. Irving also fostered a style of play which was perhaps antithetical to Tatum’s success. He had thrived in head coach Brad Stevens’ team-first mentality inspired system.
The leftover touches and shots were then divided up amongst a number of hungry mouths, including shoot-first veteran forward Marcus Morris, never shy combo guard Marcus Smart, eager third-year man Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and to a much lesser extent Terry Rozier.
To expect Tatum to have taken “the leap” in this climate may have been asking too much from a 20 year old during only his second season in the league, no matter how impressive his rookie year had been. If Tatum’s lackluster 2018-2019 season was indeed caused by a dearth of opportunities, given the team’s makeup overhaul this offseason, this is an obstacle he should be able to overcome in 2019-2020.
Another possible explanation for Tatum’s failure to become the player so many thought he could in year two was his at times obvious passivity. Those glimpses we saw of Tatum beginning to assert himself during the 2018 playoffs were few and far between last season. And when Tatum did try to stand out, he went about it all wrong, straying from his highly efficient roots to do his best Kobe Bryant impersonation, fade-away jumper after miserable fade-away jumper.
Coincidently, on a recent episode of popular local sports television program, Early Edition, co-host Gary Tanguay suggested Tatum may never turn into the player the Boston Celtics have been counting on, positing Tatum could lack the required “edge.”
In his typically outspoken fashion, Tanguay then went on to say Tatum might not be enough of an… (insert expletive here), and that almost all of the NBA’s great players possess this kind of disposition.
Unfortunately, Tanguay may have had a point. Why could Tatum not have simply taken on the “I’m going to get mine regardless attitude” of teammates Irving and Morris? In being the Celtics’ clear-cut second best player, Tatum most certainly had every right to.
But if Tatum’s only roadblock to dramatic improvement last year was his timid nature, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that now a year older, wiser, and stronger, he becomes more assertive this season.
Now, the worst case scenario for the Boston Celtics and Tatum is he simply isn’t as good as we all had thought in the immediate aftermath of his superb 2018 playoff run. If this is the case, it’s his athletic ability that may be to blame.
To many an observer’s eye, Tatum looks a step slow when compared with the league’s elite wing players (e.g. James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard). Thus, he may lack the God-given athletic ability needed to become one of the NBA’s best.
Is this the reason Tatum resorted to hoisting up all of those fade-away jumpers when trying to assert himself in the early part of last season, rather than driving the ball to the hoop? Without a first-step quick enough to allow him to dribble past his defenders, taking it to the rack would not have been a realistic option for Tatum.
Might his good but not great athleticism have put a cap on how good of a player he can become?
Boston Celtics fans won’t have to wait long to find out.
Many of the questions surrounding Tatum will be answered early on in 2019-2020. But let there be no doubt, it is vital to the Celtics’ future that Tatum lives up to the expectations his rookie campaign inspired.
Should he not, this alone might be enough to land the Celtics smack dab in the middle of the worst of possible positions: NBA purgatory. An unfortunate team finds itself in NBA purgatory when it’s not good enough to contend for a title, yet not bad enough to be compensated for its struggles with a high lottery pick from the draft.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is former Celtic Al Horford‘s old Atlanta Hawks teams. From the 2007-2008 season through the 2015-2016 season, the Hawks made the playoffs every single year, a streak spanning almost a decade.
However, the furthest Atlanta ever advanced in the playoffs during this stretch was the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, where they were summarily dismissed by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in a four game sweep.
This amounts to about ten long years of futility for the Hawks, when all the team was really doing was spinning its wheels. Ironically, it was Atlanta’s relative success that was its biggest obstacle to any chance of meaningful improvement. Such is the curse of NBA purgatory.
Earlier this offseason, Jayson Tatum predicted he’ll average over twenty points per game and make the All-Star team this season. If he doesn’t, he better do so soon.
That’s because Boston Celtics fans will not sit idly by as the Hawks’ fanbase did and watch as their beloved team is mired in mediocracy. And much of their ire will inevitably be directed at Tatum if he can’t make good on the promise he’s shown.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section.