How Jayson Tatum Can Reach His Star Potential

As soon as Twitter knew Jayson Tatum was training with Kobe Bryant, alarm bells went off.

It was the 2018 offseason, months after the youngster had helped the Boston Celtics to within one game of the NBA Finals during his rookie season. Celtics fans already didn’t like Kobe. But the idea of the Black Mamba whispering sweet nothings into the ears of their young hope was a nightmare.

Sure enough, those fears came to life.

Tatum started out the 2018-19 season hoisting long twos⁠—Kobe’s specialty⁠—and missing far too many of them. The Duke product’s true shooting dipped from an elite 58.6 percent in his rookie year to a middle-of-the-road 54.7. He scored 1.8 more points per game (15.7, up from 13.9), but it took him 2.7 more field goal attempts to get there. Much of the NBA world called it a sophomore slump.

It’s too reductive to fear that he now projects as DeMar DeRozan or late-stage Carmelo Anthony. Unlike DeRozan, Tatum is a career 40 percent three-point shooter. Unlike Melo, he’s a solid team defender, nailing rotations and flashing active hands. The St. Louis native spent his age 19 and 20 seasons as an elite role player on a pseudo-contender. He’ll be fine.

But as he progresses from leading man to supporting actor back to leading man⁠—given the Celtics’ injury woes and subsequent dysfunctional season transitioning into star departures⁠—it’s also too easy to say he simply needs to take fewer long twos.

Last season, 26 percent of Tatum’s attempts came at the rim while 30 percent were from beyond the arc. That means, if my rudimentary math is correct, 44 percent of his shots were floaters or midrange jumpers. That distribution isn’t exactly Daryl Morey-approved, but it’s not far off from the NBA’s elite scoring wings either.

Here are some comps:

  •     Paul George: 32.0%
  •     Jimmy Butler: 47.1%
  •     Kawhi Leonard: 48.4%
  •     Kevin Durant: 53.1%

Those players, especially Leonard and Durant, sink their shots. Tatum? Not so much. He canned just 36.8 percent of his pull-up twos last year and shot a laughably low 32.6 percent from floater range (a nice improvement from 25.8 percent the year before!).

The 21-year-old doesn’t need to take fewer long twos. He needs to take better ones.

Like, much better:

Even analytic superstar gods like James Harden will attempt outlandish jumpers over the course of a year. But the Celtics weren’t counting on their second-year player to be Harden, and these shots are momentum-sapping bricks, not end-of-clock prayers.

Tatum was out of control and tightly guarded on each of them. Getting in control and loosely guarded will take more than just a change in mentality.

The kid’s 6’8” frame is lithe⁠—he literally models for Abercrombie & Fitch—and he hasn’t yet reached the point where his shoulder bumps and semi-illegal push-offs gain much separation.

In the mid-post, he can get stonewalled by smaller players:

When he drives into a big man’s chest, he often boomerangs right off:

Tatum will get stronger with age, which will help him create the space needed to bully smaller defenders and create clean looks and cheap fouls. Leonard is an expert at this. He’ll nudge a player backward, set his feet, and rise up for bread-and-butter elbow jumpers.

Tatum likely won’t ever become Kawhi-level strong, but he’s already shown flashes of using his size to seek contact and take advantage: 

Another critical weakness that sometimes baits the third-year man into ugly misses? His still-developing handle. Tatum has a little bit of Durant in his game. He’ll use rangy hang dribbles to sway a defender side to side and create separation. Sometimes it works.

Other times, his hands will get slippery and force him out-of-rhythm:

It’s nearly impossible to sink a contested jumper after fumbling the ball.

Basketball players are creatures of habit, and “shooting after dribbling poorly” isn’t usually a line item on the training checklist. Tatum probably should’ve passed, sure, but those shots are fine if that creaky left hand doesn’t let him down. The tighter that handle gets this offseason, the clearer those stepback and pull-up opportunities will get.

As much work as Tatum has ahead of him, Brad Stevens also has some adjustments to make. A quick glance at his young star’s shot chart reveals an obvious imbalance: The former Blue Devil is much more comfortable shooting from the left side of the floor.

That’s not a bad thing. Most right-handed players are better going to their left. Tatum’s prefers to plant his left foot firmly on the ground when shooting, which is easier on a stepback going left than on a straight-line pull-up or a stepback going right, as CelticsBlog’s Max Carlin has pointed out.

That left-foot dominance is especially true on floaters. Tatum is abysmal overall from between three and ten feet, but he shows promise when he’s able to get to his right-to-left eurostep and explode over a defender:

The issue? As the chart shows, he takes just as many shots from the right as he does from the left.

Stevens can help tilt that shot chart leftward. But some of that shift should come naturally. With shot-sapping teammates like Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris now gone, Tatum’s will see another leap in responsibility.

He’ll have more chances to run pick-and-roll and sprint into handoffs. Instead of spotting up from either side of the floor or begging for post-ups wherever he can find them, he can now direct his drives from the top of the key. 

None of this is to say Tatum still can’t improve his shot selection.

He needs to draw more fouls, and if he’s going to shoulder more pick-and-roll reps, his ability to get to the rim could make the difference between stardom and something less. Turning down driving lanes to settle for jumpers remains an obvious weakness.

But becoming a more confident ball-handler and adding a plate or two to his deadlift won’t just make Tatum a better midrange scorer, it’ll help all facets of his offensive game.

And when defenses tighten up in the playoffs, isolation and pick-and-roll scorers like Tatum become immensely valuable. The best wings in the world have to take, and make, tough shots, many of them contested midrangers.

For the Celtics to once again contend, Tatum must be one of those elite wings: the kind of bailout option that turns a hopeless possession into a 50/50 gambit. The challenge now isn’t merely to take fewer of those tough shots. It’s to make more of them.