Consistency is the biggest obstacle in the first season for most NBA draftees. Young players in the NBA have to adjust to the pace of play, the grueling schedule, the increased talent level and about 100 different other things that come with playing at the pro level. Due to this, most rookies in the NBA are net negatives for their teams as they transition to the league. They need time on the court to develop, but they also make plenty of mistakes in those extended minutes. The growing pains are a necessary evil but it’s the main reason why young guys rarely see big minutes on winning teams (something Doc Rivers was infamous for during the Big Three era).
In his first two months in Green, Jayson Tatum has been an incredible exception to those rules, largely because the 19-year-old’s biggest strength in his first 25 games as a Celtic has actually been his consistency. The No. 3 overall pick scored 17 points on 5-of-6 shooting (4-of-5 from 3-point range) in Monday’s 111-100 win over the Bucks, helping the hosts jump out to an early double-digit lead with a 14-point outburst in the first quarter.
The performance was par for the course during a season when he’s giving the Celtics’ offense what it needs, when it needs it.He has scored in double-digits in 22 of 25 games despite averaging just 9.1 field goal attempts per game. He’s scored efficiently — shooting an NBA-leading 51.5 percent from 3-point range and 51.3 percent from the field — and that kind of consistent and elite production has translated into wins for Boston. Through 25 games, Tatum ranks 13th in the NBA in win shares (a win share is an advanced statistic that divides up credit for a team’s win) with 3.1 in total, putting him ahead of potential All-Stars such as Kevin Durant, Andre Drummond, Kyle Lowry and Nikola Jokic per Basketball-Reference.
“I think his mannerisms are just one that you can’t see if he’s rattled or not; his composure is at a very high level to only be 19,” Jason Kidd said of Tatum. “He knows how to play the game and has a very high basketball IQ, which helps their team.”
How rare is it for a rookie like Tatum to be having this much of an impact on winning? Only nine other players in NBA history have posted the win share per 48-minute rate (.194) in their rookie year that Tatum is on pace for right now. You might recognize a few of the names that have also accomplished that feat: Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Oscar Robertson, Walt Bellamy, Bob Pettit, Arvydas Sabonis and Clifford Ray. Everyone on that list (outside of Ray) is a Hall of Famer. Also, all of them posted those numbers as a 21-year-old rookie (Jordan) or older. Tatum is doing this at 19.
“I’ve seen Jayson play since he was a sophomore in high school,” Kyrie Irving said after the game. “I’ve been a fan of Jayson’s since then. I think you worry about the transition from high school to college, and college to the NBA, but I think he’s doing his due diligence in terms of putting the work in every day, doing what he needs to do and being a professional and learning how to consistently be that and now it’s paying dividends.”
While everyone knew that Tatum would be able to score right away at the next level after his performance during Summer League, his sharpshooting from beyond the arc has caught most of the NBA by surprise. The Celtics got a sneak peek of what he was capable of during a summer workout though as Brad Stevens explained.
“The thing about him is when he came in for his workout — first of all, guys that can score, the ball finds the net; it just happens, right? — he made a lot of shots. And it looked effortless, and that’s usually a pretty good sign," Stevens said. "You know, it wasn’t like it was just ... it didn’t look like it was just one of those days where he was hitting everything.
“He would miss two in a row and it wouldn’t dissuade him from hitting the next one. He had no thought about making the next five; he didn’t get ... he just kind of kept shooting it. And, like I said, for a guy with his frame, he shoots it effortless. I mean, he’s going to be able to shoot it deeper, right? And he’s going to be able to make it off running, once he gets a little bit stronger, more used to it, and everything else. He’s going to be a heck of a shooter.”
Stevens saw that Tatum was trending more towards the inefficient midrange game this offseason and tried to dissuade him from it almost immediately.
“We would play pickup games in September and he was just abusing people in the midrange,” Al Horford noted. “Just post the ball, shake and raise, and do all that. And I think Coach was kind of like, ‘No. We want you to get out there and shoot the 3s. And save those for end-of-the-clock type shots. And I think Jayson has quickly understood finding his shots on the court and taken really good shots. If he doesn’t have the shot, he’s putting it down, he’s creating, he’s attacking the rim. So it’s impressive how quickly he’s figured it out. Because it’s not easy. But I just think he’s doing a good job of really feeling the game out and shooting the ball with confidence.”
With his presence as a reliable third option averaging 13.9 ppg, the floor has opened more for the likes of Irving and Horford, as we saw in the second half on Monday night. Teams can’t leave Tatum alone anymore, which means fewer double teams for Irving and Horford to deal with.
“I think they just stopped helping as much,” Tatum said of the Bucks’ defense on him Monday night. “And then Kyrie got to do what he does the second half, and it opened up things for everybody else.”
That formula has helped the Celtics roll off 21 wins over the past 23 games in impressive fashion all while Tatum puts together one of the best and most consistent rookie seasons in league history.