After a long and tough season with the Boston Celtics, it may have taken some fans and analysts by surprise to hear Jayson Tatum throw his hat in the ring to play for Team USA in the Olympics.
Although Tatum has no history of wear and tear injuries, he did play through COVID-19 and had some minor knee soreness throughout this past campaign.
One would think it would be wise for Tatum to rest his body and resume training with his trainer, Drew Hanlen, in the states as the Boston Celtics prepare for their bounce back 2021-22 campaign.
As polished as Tatum is already, he still has a long way to go if he wants to reach legendary status, and playing in the Olympics can help him stride down that path.
There are many benefits to playing for Team USA, and why it’s more beneficial than Tatum staying state-side and going about his regular training schedule. These benefits go beyond anything he could have learned from Hanlen and could help him achieve MVP status this upcoming season, as Boston Celtics fans know the team will only go as far as Tatum takes them.
In this article, I’ll analyze the benefits of Tatum playing for Team USA and what we may see differently from him upon his return:
Benefit to Jayson Tatum playing in Olympics No. 1) More physical play
As the Boston Celtics and their fans watched Tatum break into MVP form during the back half of the 2020-21 NBA season, one number stood out above all the rest: his free throw shooting.
Even during his February 2019 stretch, where he averaged nearly 30 points per game on impeccable shooting, Tatum was not garnering too many of those points at the free-throw line.
His elite jump-shooting played the most significant part in his breakout, which eventually came around and hurt him in the playoffs against Miami’s zone defense.
Even during the start of the 2020-21 season, Tatum was not driving as much as many thought he would with the weight he put on over the summer.
He was still avoiding contact and still not getting to the line.
The finishing leap he made mid-season completely changed the game for Tatum from a scoring perspective. Realizing he could leverage his elite outside shooting to get easy looks at the rim while also leveraging his insane length and newly found strength to muscle off rim protectors led to the next step in Tatum realizing his scoring potential.
But he’s not done yet.
Tatum still needs to increase his at the rim attempt volume and keep up the driving consistency we saw down the season’s stretch.
With the Olympics’ more rigid rules, we can expect Tatum to become more accustomed to receiving fewer calls at the rim, which will lead to an easier time getting calls in the NBA where the rules are more flexible.
Tatum will not only become a better foul baiter but a better finisher in traffic and through contact with Olympic defenses being more condensed. The more challenging it is to score in the Olympics, the better for Tatum.
Benefit to Jayson Tatum playing in Olympics No. 2) Learning how to play off-ball
Although Tatum is probably the third-best player on Team USA’s roster, he has not been treated that way through the exhibition games and first group games.
Even after Popovich praised him and Team USA advertised him as the next face of USA basketball, Tatum has been benched, and his touches have been limited.
He’s being deployed as a spot-up shooter and extra passer, rarely seeing any sets to activate his elite isolation ability against weaker perimeter defenses.
I doubt Popovich changes his scheme, so Tatum will have to get used to playing off-ball and learn how to impact his team without the rock. As much as I’d like to see Tatum shred through defenses wearing number 10, this may turn out to be an essential learning curve for him.
Since he broke out in February of 2020, the Boston Celtics have been using him as a helo-centric offensive player due in part to their poor roster construction and the efficiency at which Tatum-ball works.
It’s not Lebron-ball, but with Tatum’s improved vision and touch, he can be a legitimate primary playmaker while remaining an elite scorer.
Tatum’s ability to play this role is not in question but, rather, whether or not the position will lead to high-level success in the playoffs, which it won’t.
That’s why the Boston Celtics need to prioritize getting more passers and ball handlers to leverage Tatum’s off-ball abilities and why he must get used to his newfound role on Team USA.
Tatum is one of the best shooters in the league today, and his massive frame makes him a prime candidate to be an elite cutter.
Throughout his rookie year, we saw these two abilities as he played off of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and in the early part of the 2019-20 season as he played off of Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward.
I’m not saying the Boston Celtics should take the ball out of Tatum’s hands, but they should look to leverage his elite scoring gravity by moving him around more without the ball.
Team USA will have to do the same if they want to achieve some success while keeping the ball out of his hands.
It’s a necessary evil for Tatum’s development.