Sometimes, all it takes is a moment for a player to introduce his level of talent to the world. It’s probably irresponsible to rely on a singular event to assess a player’s capabilities. But sometimes, a player is so good, and the moment is so great that it’s able to catapult that individual from one tier to another. From myth, that player becomes real. Legit.
Jayson Tatum had that moment in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, he put up 24 points and seven rebounds to lead a young team ravaged by injuries. But what made that game so special for Tatum was his dunk against the greatest player of this generation.
To put LeBron James in a poster is one thing. But to have the audacity to attempt something so powerful in the final quarter of a do-or-die as a rookie? It’s something else. It’s the type of confidence that separates the good from the great. With that one moment, Tatum went from young upstart to potential superstar. It was now a matter of him building on what he had done during his rookie season.
Sadly, instead of a leap, what we got was a slump. Tatum had a less than promising sophomore year. He was inefficient and inconsistent throughout the season and it frustrated Tatum believers. Instead of marveling at his complete offensive game, we were left complaining at his poor shot selection (30.7 percent of his attempts were from midrange). Rather than seeing growth, the advanced stats told us that he actually got worse compared to his rookie year (from 1.2 BPM to -0.2 BPM).
When it comes to players improving, you usually hinge your hope on a player learning a certain skill. It can be a jump shot, a post-game, or in some cases, a player’s handle. Tatum could shoot. Tatum had skill in the post. His handle was respectable. How then would he make the leap from potential superstar to actual superstar?
If there’s one thing the 2019-2020 run of Taco Jay has taught us, it’s this: his problems were never about what skill he needed to learn. Instead, it was about how and when to use the gifts that he had. The growth he needed was intellectual, not physical.
What Tatum did was tweak the little parts of his game. The most noticeable change was his shot selection. Instead of shooting mid-rangers, he made a conscious effort of attempting more pull-up threes (25.4 percent of his attempts were pull-up threes with 40.4 percent efficiency). He already had the fabled mid-range games we believe superstars need. What Tatum needed to learn was to know when he needed to shoot from that area. Three is greater than two. Tatum needed to inject that to his mentality so he could become much more complete.
After embracing the need to shoot more threes, the next part in Tatum’s growth was his playmaking. He’ll likely never be a LeBron James level of a playmaker; that isn’t how he plays. The growth he made in terms of his passing is more similar to Kevin Durant. He treated passing not as a hindrance to his offensive game, but instead, as something that could aide him.
He’s a born scorer. Putting the ball in the basket is easy for the Missouri native. So, why not make it even easier by making opponents second-guess themselves whenever he attacks the defense? Will he score? Or will he whip a pass to the corner?
Add to all of that his improved body composition and tighter handle, Tatum’s small tweaks to his game resulted to amazing returns. His increased usage (22.1 percent to 28.6 percent) led to higher production and steady efficiency. He went from a negative during his sophomore year to one of the most effective players in the league (4.0 BPM, 17th in the entire NBA).
At the very least, he was back on track in the trajectory we put him in from the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. The confidence fans had in him was back. But he was still being tagged as a potential superstar. With how he’s grown, could we now call him as a legitimate superstar? Definitively, not yet. He needed one more moment to cement his status.
The stage was set for him as the Boston Celtics were faced the defending champions, Toronto Raptors in a Game 7. Up for grabs was a seat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The score read 89-87 and Grant Williams was on the line for a pair of potentially dagger free throws.
Williams missed the first one. That’s alright, the first one is always the hardest. They just needed to make one and stop a Raptors three in the ensuing possession. Clank. Williams missed again.
That miss could have been potentially disastrous for the Celtics. But suddenly, from out of nowhere, Tatum went up and grabbed the offensive rebound for Boston. Toronto ended up fouling the forward a few seconds later, putting the Celtics back on the line with a chance to ice the game.
It wasn’t a dunk against the league’s best player. It wasn’t even a heroic pull-up three. It was an offensive rebound, something other players could have done. Yet, somehow, that moment perfectly encapsulated the kind of Game 7 Tatum had against the Raptors. It was unassuming, but in terms of overall value, it was everything.
Tatum had 29 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists against the Raptors, but somehow, the explosiveness of his stat line exceeded how his performance felt throughout the game. He was steady, more than electric. That held more value. His points came at the perfect moments. His passes weren’t eye-popping, but they were timely in helping Boston’s offense. But none of what he did was as on-point as his rebound of Grant Williams’ missed free throw. It was a singular moment that spoke volumes of how elite Tatum was. He was no longer just a potential superstar. That Game 7 solidified his status as a legitimate superstar.
He’s for real.
The journey continues for the Boston Celtics, as they face the red-hot Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. They could potentially lose that series; the Heat are a tough out. But if they need one reason to believe that they can survive the nervous moments and make it to the Finals, they have Tatum’s rising play to rely on. He has the tools. He has the knowledge. Most importantly, he now knows the when and the how.
He’s a full-fledged superstar. Believe that.