A 19-year-old shouldn’t be adjusting to the NBA this quickly.
Jayson Tatum is growing up before our eyes. The 19-year-old forward has played in 15 games so far this season, and the Boston Celtics could hardly ask for anything more. He’s average more than 30 minutes per game and learning at a rapid pace.
“He can be told something once and apply it immediately,” head coach Brad Stevens said earlier this month. That’s a skill that can even elude veterans with several years of experience.
Tatum's been so successful that it was almost a relief to see him finally commit a rookie mistake in an otherwise-standout performance against the Nets on Nov. 14.
Out in front of a one-on-zero fast break, Tatum got stuck between laying the ball in and dunking. The result was amusing, and it was reassurance that Tatum is, in fact, 19. He’s a teenager. He’s supposed to be making embarrassing mistakes every now and again.
In that moment, Tatum actually looked like a rookie, not a player who’s averaging this line: 14 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks, 50 percent from the field, and 49 percent from the three-point line. That botched fast break felt out of character, because everything else that Tatum has done — for a team that has won 13 straight and is atop the league, mind you — makes him look so natural.
Tatum is already fixing all his flaws
It’s like Stevens said — it seems like Tatum has an uncanny ability to recognize mistakes and not just eliminate them, but fix the process that caused them.
"If he gets beat on something he rarely gets beat on it again or over and over,” Stevens said. “He makes the adjustment. He's got a good emotional maturity about him that's well beyond his years.”
Tatum’s biggest knock coming out of college was whether or not he could fit into the modern NBA game. Scouts knocked his shot selection and tendency for long two-pointers, especially inefficient pull-up ones taken over defenders. Tatum’s summer league play, though excellent, still featured plenty of that. Since the season started, though, Tatum has had a completely different mindset.
Tatum takes nearly 36 percent of his shots at the rim and more than 32 percent from behind the arc, while just 18 percent of his shots have been attempted from that dreaded 10-to-23-foot range. Stevens and the Celtics coaching staff deserve credit for putting Tatum in good positions, and Boston’s talent helps immensely. Still, Tatum isn’t looking for those shots unless they’re natural, high-percentage looks.
In July, one scout told Bleacher Report: “I wonder how integrable and valuable a killer mid-range, isolation operator is in today's league. And that's what Tatum is until he proves his three-point shot is dependable in the pros.”
Not only is Tatum attempting one-third of his shots from behind the arc, but he was hitting more than 50 percent of them until a few games ago. That figure will inevitably fall — he won’t continue to shoot 100 percent from the right corner, after all — but he looks more comfortable than anyone could have imagined.
Take this example: A catch-and-shoot three where Tatum expertly uses a side-step to free himself. It would have been so easy for Tatum to step into that shot, rather than to the side. It would have lined him up with where the college line used to be. Instead, he pulls off a move that’s generally reserved for renowned shooters like Klay Thompson.
It’s a small thing in the moment, but a huge indication of how well Tatum perceives both the game and his role on this team.
Can you mention Tatum without Jaylen Brown?
The two young wings go hand-in-hand, it feels like. The 21-year-old Brown has been nearly as good (14.7 points on 54 percent true shooting), and may finish with a better season if Tatum eventually hits a rookie wall.
Boston is an enduring example of gluttony right now, having two young stars on the wing that are already contributing at an above-average NBA level. The Celtics aren’t just having their cake and eating it, too — they have a five-year supply of cake, maybe even 10, and it’s somehow incredibly healthy, and maybe even cures cancer.
Brown played 78 games his rookie year, but at least he suffered through rookie moments and generally took the slower track that players his age are supposed to. He only averaged 6.6 points and shot 34 percent behind the arc. For Tatum, at least through 15 games, it’s like he skipped all those steps and jumped straight to the good parts. Between the two of them, Boston is coasting through the Eastern Conference and only has a brighter future ahead.
“The reality is we need (Tatum) and Jaylen to be good,” Stevens said in that same interview earlier this month. “And if we're going to be a good team, those guys are big, important parts of it.”
So far, so good.