Boston Celtics: Assessing Jayson Tatum’s improvements made in 2020-21

With the 2020-21 season coming to a close for the Boston Celtics after a loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5, it’s only fitting that we go back and examine the best season of Jayson Tatum‘s short career.

The season started out how many expected — with Gordon Hayward now in Charlotte and Kemba Walker sidelined, Tatum’s raw production increased exponentially due to a rise in touches.

In his first ten games of the season, the wing averaged an impressive 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 3.8 assists on a 58.8 true shooting percentage.

His 3-point volume was what stuck out, as he was cashing in an absurd 3.5 triples per game on eight attempts, which equated to 43.8 percent from beyond the arc.

The first notable improvement Tatum had made was with his playmaking. His processing speed was faster, his passes were thrown with more velocity & higher accuracy, and he seemed to have no problem dealing with tighter defenses.

However, he had made no notable improvements to his scoring repertoire, which was exasperated when he contracted COVID-19.

He missed five games to the virus and played arguably the worst basketball he has ever played in his career the following month upon his return. Tatum was down to averages of 24 points, 6.9 rebounds, and five assists on 51.6 true shooting percentage.

His efficiency and consistency tanked after getting the virus, largely in part to a change in his breathing pattern as well as a shot to his conditioning. He did not have the strength or burst to drive to the rim and he couldn’t generate enough lift on his jumpers to draw iron.

This stretch was not good for Tatum or the Boston Celtics in the moment, but it did teach both parties valuable lessons which they carried on throughout the rest of the season.

Going into March, Tatum bounced back from his putrid stretch in April, averaging 25.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists on a 58.5 true shooting percentage. His jumper was back and so was his energy.

But something bigger happened for Tatum, more than just getting back the lift on his shots and being able to breathe properly — he figured out his finishing around the rim.

Up until that point in the season, Tatum had been shooting 61 percent at the rim on just 4.6 takes per game. That’s about 3 percent below league average on underwhelming volume for someone with Tatum’s physical gifts.

As the season moved on, however, he improved this aspect of his game by shooting 68 percent at the rim in March and 72 percent for the rest of the season on 5.6 field goal attempts.

He was dunking the ball more, he was experimenting with more acrobatic finishes and his touch was so much softer than it had ever been. His small hands stopped holding him back, as he began to fearlessly take on rim protectors and finish over them with ease.

With this improvement of finishing at the rim, the next step for Tatum would be drawing fouls around it.

Up until April, Tatum was averaging 4.8 free throw attempts per game. For a volume scorer that is an extremely low number, and a number that would have to improve if his game was to stay resilient in the playoffs.

Luckily, he did figure it out and it did carry over into the postseason for the Boston Celtics.

In April he averaged 7.3 trips to the line and shot 88 percent from it.

Now that Tatum was comfortable finishing around the rim, he had to learn how to bait rim protectors into fouling him so that his drives were not so predictable and shallow. This included incorporating pump fakes, shot fakes, rip-throughs, and a massive step up in Tatum’s feel for the floor.

He would have to start knowing where the big and the help was if he wanted to perfect his foul baiting, as well as knowing where his man’s hands were and where their movement was taking them.

This was so he would know when to try and draw contact and how to do it so that he was guaranteed a trip to the line. He did all these things and he was doing it against some of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This improvement was massive, especially seeing as it came right before the playoffs when he would need it the most.

In the five games the Boston Celtics played against Brooklyn, the 23-year-old averaged a whopping 30.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists on 58.3 TS%.

Even with all the pressure and attention that Brooklyn committed to him, Tatum found a way to score at historic levels in a poorly spaced environment.

But how?

On top of his elite shot-making, an abundance of moves, and elite feel for the floor, Tatum is averaging 9.8 free throw attempts per game. Getting an uncontested 10 points in a game where Tatum is really the only scoring threat is massive and it’s going to allow him to reach unguardable levels on offense moving forward.

So, in retrospect, the All-Star’s season was full of surprises and memorable moments despite him coming down with a deadly disease and the fact that the Boston Celtics did not do so hot in the win column.

He took massive steps forward in playmaking, finishing around the rim and drawing fouls while maintaining his elite 3-point shooting, elite defense, and elite shot creation.

As Tatum continues on his journey to becoming a league MVP and a top-5 player in the league, these types of tweaks are going to be what makes the difference between him striving for a reputation of being a top 50 player of all time or a top 25 player of all time.

Next season, hopefully Jayson Tatum will look to improve his touch from midrange and continue trying to implement a floater into his scoring arsenal. But for now, with all the improvements he’s made the wing sits amongst the top 12 players in the league with a very real chance of entering the top 10 as soon as next season.