Tatum drives Boston forward

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Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Welcome to Stevens’ school of talented ballers, where a class is always in session, and the reigning valedictorian is Jayson Tatum. 

Professor Xavier made a career out of teaching young, specially gifted individuals to harness their extraordinary talents and use them judiciously. Despite the dissent in the media and the forever changing public perception of his work, the X-Men he assembled over the years went on to save the universe countless times.

Brad Stevens is doing similar work in Boston, educating his young gifted squad on the nuances of NBA basketball, showing them what is required to succeed at this level. Fortunately for Stevens, he has a star pupil, just as Professor X did in Cyclops.

Jayson Tatum is the player charged with guiding the Celtics towards a championship. Joined by his X-Men cast, he leads the offensive charge every time the team goes into battle.

Tatum is embracing this role and trying to lead by example. However, in leading the line, the St. Louis native has become somewhat of a “chucker” in recent games. Before the second game against Indiana, Tatum had attempted 71 field goals in three games, converting 30 of them. Those attempts primarily came from behind the three-point line on the wing or on half-hearted drives that avoided contact at every opportunity.

Instead of taking the ball on a straight-line drive and forcing Jarrett Allen to back peddle and then contend the shot, Tatum slaloms through the defense, allowing Allen to get on his hip and block the attempt. That type of drive has its place within the All-Star’s repertoire, but with his size and frame, he can do a lot of damage when putting the defending big under pressure around the rim.

Playing the second game against Indiana, Tatum embraced a more direct, bruising play style, attacking Pacers big man Domantas Sabonis with poise and confidence.

Tatum rejects the Daniel Theis screen and drives directly at the retreating Sabonis, taking the bump and converting the attempt. Taking knocks such as these when penetrating is necessary if a player wishes to increase the time spent at the charity stripe, and while this specific possession didn’t end in free throws, multiple others did.

Like the X-Men franchise, the Celtics will face many considerably dangerous foes. In Indiana, they met a team with a highly inventive coach, who may have stumbled onto an effective strategy to guard the Celtics talisman.

Head Coach Nate Bjorkgren is the first of a Nick Nurse coaching tree, fitting that he’s the one to implement a quirky defensive wrinkle; over two games, Malcolm Brogdon guarded Tatum for a total of 11:15, holding Tatum to four points on 2-for-9 shooting (22%). Brogdon’s speed when chasing around screens and an ability to stay in front of Tatum caused the fourth-year wing multiple issues, forcing him to adapt.

Here Tatum gets Brogdon in the mid-post. The now 6’10’’ wing uses his size difference by backing his man down before pivoting and getting a clean look at the rim. Sure, a guard will do wonders to slow Tatum down in the open court or deter him from putting the ball on the floor when a defense sets, but attacking them in the post should always be a bread-and-butter option.

Another guard has to try handling Tatum in the post. The Duke product receives the ball on the wing and begins a straight-line drive. Justin Holiday does a fantastic job of taking away the lane and forcing him to pick up his dribble. Tatum goes deep into his bag of tricks to finish the play with a step-through floater with little wiggle room available. Great defense, incredible invention, but not good enough to contain a rising star breaking into the Top-10 conversation.

It’s worth noting that Tatum currently sits seventh among players with three or more games for drives. The difference between the victory over the Pacers and the games that came before was his willingness to attack the defense and embrace contact. The numbers back this up too, after going the opening two games of the season with zero attempts at the line, Tatum had four tries in the Pacers’ loss, but in the second game, he went for ten charity shots.

Everything in life has a reason, something more profound than what you can see on the surface. In Tatum driving to the rim, the case remains the same. Why is it essential that one of the best shooters in the league continues to improve his penetration game?

Simply put, it keeps the defense honest. When you have a player who’s known only for their shooting ability, defenses close out with abandon; if a player is a certified slasher or mid-range threat, the defense will sag off to allow necessary room and reaction time to contain their man. But, when a player can truly do it all and do it at a high level, there’s always going to be a compromise. Close out and he will blow by you; sag and BOOM, a smooth jumper right in your face.

Will there still be times when Tatum’s shot selection is nothing short of questionable? Of course. It comes with the territory of being the focal point of an offense and frankly, the ire of frustrated fans. But we’re seeing signs of growth in an area we’ve been clamoring for in recent seasons. Embrace the turbulence, get through it with your eyes closed if you have to, but know this – Jayson Tatum is figuring out his inside game, and when he does, it’s going to be a spectacular ascent.