Jayson Tatum is already ahead of schedule in year two

(Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

In the moments leading up to the opening tip of Celtics-Sixers at the TD Garden on Tuesday night, the Celtics game ops staff played a video recapping the team’s rebuild over the last past five years, starting from the hiring of Brad Stevens in the summer of 2013.

Nearly every single move was chronicled for each core member of this year’s roster, all the way from the drafting to Marcus Smart to the trade for Kyrie Irving. The section that drew the loudest applause from the Garden faithful? The drafting of Jayson Tatum.

The reaction was fitting. Despite being surrounded by the likes of Irving and Gordon Hayward, there is probably no other player on the roster that excites Celtics fans quite like the 20-year-old phenom. He surpassed the team’s wildest expectations in his rookie year despite leaving plenty of room for growth in several areas.

After an ugly preseason, there was uncertainty about just how quickly Tatum would be able to build on that potential. The Celtics wanted him to take on a more secondary role in the offense at the start of last year when surrounded by such a talented supporting cast and he proved he was capable of far more as the year worn on. With Hayward and Irving back in the fold, Tatum’s role was a bit murky heading into the opener. He would start, obviously, but just how heavy of a scoring load would he be asked to carry. The second-year forward wasted little time in answering that question in Tuesday’s 105-87 win over the Sixers.

“It’s a great feeling,” Tatum said. Obviously in preseason we didn’t play well at all. But the week of practice did us justice and it showed tonight.”

Tatum put a lackluster Celtics offense on his back in the first quarter, scoring nine of Boston’s first 11 points of the night while the rest of his teammates struggled. Against one of the best defensive teams in the league, Tatum was available to find his spots all over the floor and punished whatever player the Sixers threw at him time and time again. When the damage was done, he piled up a game-high 23 points (9-of-17 FG) in just 29 minutes, essentially picking up where he left on from last year against some of the toughest competition in the East. While it’s tough to envision a young player taking such a big step forward after averaging 14 points per game in their rookie year, the guy on the floor looks to be fully capable of doing just that.

”I just want to be better than last year, and that’s for everybody,” Tatum explained. “Everybody wants to be better each year. We understand Ky is the leader and he’s rarely gonna have a game like he did tonight. When he does, everybody has to be ready.”

“We need him to be great,” Brad Stevens added after the win. “We talked about Gordon and Kyrie really having good weeks, coming off those injuries and not playing in the last couple exhibition games. But the other guy that really went to a different level – because he struggled a little bit in the exhibition games – was Tatum. And, he’s a good player and we need him to be good. And as I’ve told him and all our other wings, if those guys just really commit to being great defensively and making the next right play, everything’s going to work out. Because there’s a lot of good players out there.”

The skillset that Tatum has to work with is exactly what the Celtics need against a team like the Sixers that has the ability to jam up the lane with length and elite shot blocking. Tatum feasted on switches all night against the likes of Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and whoever else Brett Brown elected to throw at him in any given sequence. He got the looks he wanted for the majority of the night.

The most encouraging part about Tatum’s night is likely about what he was doing beyond the scoring. He grabbed nine rebounds (one shy of a team-high) against a formidable Sixers front line, using his length to keep the likes of Embiid and Simmons from dominating the offensive glass. That type of effort is going to be needed on a nightly basis for the smaller starting five, particularly as Al Horford’s rebounding rate continues to decline.

Tatum’s impressive scoring ability also continues to force defenders to give him more attention, a situation that will only lead to a bigger dilemma for opponents as Irving and Hayward round into form. When the Sixers doubled him on Tuesday night on dribble penetration, Tatum’s improving court vision (three assists) made them pay.

That type of all-around performance had several veterans raving about his performance after the win.

“His ability to go out there and see the right plays and get the right matchup, and know when to attack and know when to pass, that’s one of those great things,” Aron Baynes said. “He’s seeing the game a lot slower now. It’s fun to be out there with him. Again, he’s another guy that creates so much space, and it’s about giving him the ball in the right place, and he’s going to make a great play.”

The Celtics already have two players capable of being No. 1 options within an offense and Tatum is making a strong case for himself to join that tier in just his sophomore season. That type of advanced development shows exactly why the Celtics are putting such a high priority on contending this season by going into the tax and retaining all their supporting pieces that could walk next season. Tatum’s potential raises the ceiling for this team and makes the idea of taking down the Warriors more than just a pipe dream. Every year the Celtics have with him making cheap money on a rookie contract is a crucial opportunity and it’s one that leaves Celtics fans and opponents alike daydreaming about the possibilities.

“He’s a special one,” Embiid said after the loss. “He’s going to be great for years. The Celtics are lucky to have him.”