Jayson Tatum has been the best player on the court in Games 1 and 2 of the Celtics-Raptors’ series, proving he is on track to ultimately reach the elite level inhabited by the stars whose influence is present in his game: Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
Live NBA: Toronto @ Boston GM3
Thursday 3rd September 11:30pm
When we compare up-and-coming young stars to the previous generation, we perhaps do them a disservice. It is an easy and automatic thing to do. It helps us to cement and communicate our understanding of players and what they can do when we can use well-known predecessors as yardsticks.
To do so, however, obscures the fact that due to playing styles, mannerisms, intricacies, tendencies, body types and skillsets, no two players are truly alike. We need only look at the various sets of twins in the NBA to see that, with the possible exception of Jason and Jarron Collins.
When a player starts his ascent towards the upper echelons of the game, though, it is hard to resist the temptation to compare him to the former stars he has the hallmarks of.
So with that in mind, Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics is a whole lot of Carmelo Anthony, peppered with obvious influences of Kobe Bryant and with a little bit of Kevin Durant on top.
With averages of 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game in the regular-season, Tatum had dispensed with any remaining concerns about the limited progress (and notably different offensive profile) of his sophomore season, and become one of the best players in the Eastern Conference.
It was clearly manifest in his place in the hierarchy of the team. Kemba Walker joined the Celtics last summer, a star scoring talent in his own right, yet it is the former Hornet who is deferring to the influence of the younger man, rather than vice versa. Walker is both very good and very willing off the ball, and the growth of Tatum facilitates and justifies him being used as such.
Moreover, Tatum’s play thus far in the post-season, and in particular against the quality defense of the Toronto Raptors in their second-round series, has spoken to the fact that this is his Celtics team now.
We have looked previously at the fact that, even though they are now absent Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ defense this season is about as good as the same unit that won them their inaugural NBA championship last year.
Even with that, though, it was Tatum with 34 points who led Boston once again in scoring in Game 2 of this series, picking up the slack from an unusually poor performance from Walker and being able to make something happen whenever the offense became bogged down.
Against this Raptors defense, that can happen quite often, but Tatum is now the type who can blast through the concrete.
Tatum has continued his development from elite efficiency role player in his rookie campaign to star go-to guy, having imbued the footwork and space-creation methods of Kobe off the dribble with the mid-range isolations and post-ups of a prime Melo, flanked with a high-volume high-efficiency three-point stroke that neither of the other two ever consistently managed, but which Durant did.
Tatum has yet to ascend to the individual heights of any of those three – of course he has not yet; this is only his third season – but he is certainly on track to get there. The growth is consistent and obvious, taking place before our very eyes.
To begin this season, Tatum was missing a lot of shots in and around the paint, particularly on floaters.
He had also significantly increased his time spent in isolation plays in his second season. His spot-up shooting possessions fell from 27 per cent of his usage to 18 per cent as he much more frequently sought to create on the ball. It has a limited effect: Tatum shot only 31.6 per cent from the field in isolation last year with a 14.8 per cent turnover rate.
Those two things combined risked tempering enthusiasm for his future.
Yet the advantage of the NBA regular season being as long as it is lies in how it provides plenty of early-season opportunity for on-the-job training and development. Tatum and the Celtics are now seeing the benefits of that.
When the team cannot get going offensively, it is Tatum they often look to. He has shown the ability to raise up from the outside like Durant and create some space in the mid-range areas like Anthony.
In his ability to get to the rim and the free-throw line with more consistency than before, the influence of Bryant is making him into a fearless multi-option scorer.
If this was easy, Pascal Siakam would be doing it going back the other way for Toronto. Tatum, though, is outclassing Siakam in this series so far.
Combined with this offensive growth is a level of defense not seen in many star wings. Tatum takes a good deal of credit for Siakam not been able to get going in Games 1 and 2, and for forming the same type of wall that he himself is breaking down on the other end.
There is still plenty to do before Tatum reaches the apex of his game. Like many young scorers, he can be prone to playing with tunnel vision at times.
When defenses are so intently and so regularly keyed in on you, there are a lot of reads to make, and although he is improving as a decoy, he does not always make the best ones. Tatum also often reacts to perceived missed calls, which, while relatable, can see him also not be in position on the resulting defensive possessions.
Nonetheless, imperfections should not detract from the overall impression. Everyone has them, including those he has been compared to above. The fact remains that comparisons to players of that calibre are increasingly easy to do as he continues to raise his game and push his team forwards.
In a series against the defending champions, with a young star of their own, and on a fairly-well-loaded Celtics team, Tatum has been quite distinctly the best player in the series so far.