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It’s time for the Celtics to give Jayson Tatum a bigger offensive role

David Butler II - USA Today Sports

After 28 games, it’s slowly become clear Jayson Tatum is the second best (healthy) scorer on the Celtics. It’s not official yet on paper, but it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a reality. Jaylen Brown is second on the team in points per game with 14.7, but Tatum is closing quickly with 14.1 ppg despite taking just 9.1 shot attempts a night. That places him sixth on the team, behind the likes of Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Brown.

Shot attempts per game

Kyrie Irving: 17.7
Jaylen Brown: 11.6
Al Horford: 10.3
Marcus Morris: 10.3
Marcus Smart: 9.3
Jayson Tatum: 9.1

If you account for shot attempts per 36 minutes, Tatum’s current piece of the Celtics offensive pie is even smaller. He’s ninth on the roster in that department, barely beating out bigs such as Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis despite putting together one of the most efficient offensive rookie seasons in NBA history.

On Sunday, Tatum scored 11 points on 4-of-7 shots in a 91-81 win over the Pistons in a game when the C’s offense was struggling from the field (41 percent shooting) for large chunks of the action. Boston has been winning plenty despite Tatum’s lack of aggression, mainly with their defense, but it’s readily apparent the rookie is capable of handling far more offensive responsibility. And on nights like Sunday, the C’s would benefit from the No. 3 overall pick taking on a bigger role.

Understandably, Brad Stevens hasn’t wanted to throw too much at a 19-year-old rookie out of the gate. Getting him to fit into the starting lineup of a 50-plus win team was the bigger priority, and there was no need to add unneeded pressure to that for him to be a top scorer as well. Tatum was also admittedly hesitant to be aggressive with his shot selection with that group during the start of the year, and that was a situation that Stevens openly addressed.

“He has to shoot the ball when he’s open,” Stevens said back in October. “I think that the first couple of weeks he had his moments where he hesitated on the catch, and we need him to shoot. He’s got great size, he’s a hard guy to challenge on his shot, and for whatever reason, there was hesitation early and he would fake when he didn’t need to, and drive it. We need him to be ready and willing to make shots for our team.”

Now, Tatum is making defenses pay dearly for rotating off of him with elite 3-point shooting (NBA-leading 52 percent), but he’s obviously capable of being much more than a spot shooter in this offense. However, for the time being, most of chances he get has been coming from open looks beyond the arc and strong takes to the rims off of closeouts. When he does get a rare opportunity to create for himself in a 1-on-1 or pick-and-roll situation, we’ve seen plays like this:

"Some people have it and some people don't. It's just as simple as that," Kyrie Irving told reporters in Detroit. "I think (Tatum has) pretty much shown that he can play, as people say, with the big boys at the end of the game, without wavering in terms of his decision-making or anything like that. He trusts what we have going on and he knows where his opportunities will be, especially down the stretch."

The 6-foot-8 forward is shooting 50 percent from inside the arc as well, and he’s got the best free throw rate on the team per shot attempt. He can create his own shot, finish through contact and force defenders into tough choices as they weigh defending against his elite jumper or quick burst to the paint. It’s an incredible weapon for the Celtics to have, yet at times it is being wasted.

Sunday night was a great example. With Marcus Morris sidelined with a knee issue, the time was ripe for Tatum to take a heavier load within the C’s offense, specifically with the second unit. Instead, the likes of Terry Rozier (2-of-7) and Marcus Smart (4-of-10, five turnovers) were largely responsible for making the Celtics offense stall while Tatum watched as a bystander. Tatum took just two shots during Boston’s 15-point second quarter.

The Celtics survived a pair of lengthy offensive droughts in the second and fourth quarters, thanks to some strong defense and an ugly shooting night from the Pistons (33 percent). It’s evident though that the Celtics offense has plenty of improvement (12th in offensive rating) despite a 23-5 start.

Tatum will be the focal offensive point of this team (or another one) in the years to come. There’s nothing wrong with asking him to do it for a few minutes per game (largely with the bench unit) now. He's playing a great role within the starting five as a spot-up shooter, but the C's should be looking to him more when that group isn't on the floor together. He’s ready for it, and the Celtics will become an even better team because of it.