Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum is one of the many bright young stars the NBA has to offer. At just 22 years of age, he already has an All-Star selection and an Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
There’s no question that he’s a great player today, but the question is how great he’ll be in the future. Tatum’s three years in the league have shown that he has the potential to reach superstar status. Here’s why.
Tatum Already Has a Polished Game
First and foremost, Tatum’s superstar potential is a direct result of his polished skill on the court. Basketball has always been a game where skill reigns supreme in determining the best players. There are exceptions to the rule, like any. Shaquille O’Neal was an unstoppable force primarily because of his physical attributes. Michael Jordan and Lebron James combined fundamentals with freak athleticism. However, skill is generally what separates good players from great ones.
There’s nothing wrong with a player’s value resulting primarily from their sheer physical dominance. Having elite skill is just usually more conducive to success. For one, skilled players are generally tougher for playoff defenses to neutralize. With them, it’s difficult to key in on a specific weakness. LeBron James in 2010 compared to LeBron James in 2012 is a prime example of this. James was arguably the better athlete in 2010 but succeeded much more in the postseason when he developed a consistent jumper & refined post moves.
Tatum is not the pure athlete that Zion Williamson is, but his skill makes up for it. And that’s ultimately a good thing. Athleticism inevitably fades away over time, but skill doesn’t. Dirk Nowitzki is the perfect example.
Offensively, Tatum’s game set speaks for itself. He’s already developed a smooth scoring touch from every part of the floor and has no glaring weakness. He can finish in traffic against bigger defenders, has viable post moves, and can shoot consistently. Tatum can make jumpers of every type; off the dribble, off the catch & shoot, or even on tough fadeaways and turnaround jumpers. The numbers are indicative of his polished offensive game as well. Before the league’s suspension, Tatum was averaging a team-high 23.6 PPG on shooting splits of 45%/40%/80%.
On defense, Tatum has the necessary athletic tools to be an elite defender as his career progresses. This holds especially true if he adds a few more pounds of muscle. He has plenty of room to grow on that end but is still far ahead of most other players his age. Tatum ranked 8th in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares in 2020, over the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons.
All in all, defense is the key for Tatum. His offensive skill set leaves little doubt that he’ll be an elite scorer down the line, as that’s almost a given. But defensive improvement would put him over the top as a 2-way superstar. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but Tatum’s fast growth as a player gives fans all the reason to believe that no ceiling is too high for the 22-year old.
Tatum Rises to the Occasion
An elite skillset isn’t the only thing that separates Jayson Tatum from the pack. After all, there’s more to basketball than what goes into the box score. Another element that most great players exhibit is the clutch gene. And luckily for Tatum, he already has this mentality. It became apparent in the 2018 playoffs.
Tatum and the 2018 Celtics were clear underdogs against the opposing Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Without prized offseason acquisitions Kyrie Irving & Gordon Hayward in the lineup, Boston had already surprised many by advancing this far. They’d be facing off against LeBron James, who’d been playing arguably the best basketball of his career.
Despite the odds stacked against them, Boston put up a strong fight in the series, pushing the Cavs to 7 games before being outlasted. Most notably, rookie Jayson Tatum was leading the charge as Boston’s most productive player.
He was the Celtics 2nd leading scorer on an efficient 50% shooting and looked like a seasoned veteran through it all. There were few moments in the playoffs where Tatum resembled an inexperienced rookie. He was mature and that ready for the challenge.
The Defining Dunk
Tatum also had a defining moment in the series when he threw down an emphatic dunk on LeBron James. He followed it up by getting in his face and making sure that James felt his presence. On the stat sheet, it was only two points, but it represented so much more than that. Because of moments like this throughout the series, Tatum’s confidence and killer instinct was never in question.
He wasn’t afraid to confront proven opponents and wanted the ball in his hands in these big games. It’s tough to quantify a player’s mentality, but the 2018 playoffs made it evident that Tatum’s was special. Few players, and even fewer rookies, would have dunked on a player like James and gotten in his face afterward. But Tatum did it anyway because he had that type of mentality from such a young age.
That version of Tatum didn’t show up as fans would’ve wanted in the 2019 playoffs, but much of that could be attributed to him playing second-fiddle to star Kyrie Irving. In games where Tatum has had his chance to shine, he’s produced, and the 2018 playoffs & 2020 regular season are perfect examples. With the 2020 playoffs possibly happening, don’t be surprised if Tatum puts together another stellar run as Boston’s go-to guy.
It’s still very early on in Jayson Tatum’s career, but his path to NBA superstardom is looking more and more likely each time he steps on the court. With just three years of NBA experience, he’s already matured into an extremely skilled player with a championship-level mental approach to the game. And with the reins handed to him in Boston, Tatum has a perfect opportunity to be the league’s next big thing.