Jayson Tatum is no stranger to adversity. From growing up in tough circumstances to struggling amidst injuries and gruelling workouts in the early stages of his basketball career, the St. Louis native’s relentless drive and continuously growing game have taken him to great heights.
In four seasons, Tatum has not disappointed. Since being handed the keys to the Boston Celtics (albeit unintentionally due to Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury) in 2017, he has emerged as one of the NBA’s brightest stars. His effect on the team and the results produced so far have also validated the gamble of Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge as Boston has not missed the playoffs and are likely to continue that streak this year.
Tatum’s performances in three playoff appearances belie his age and proves that he never runs away from the spotlight. His postseason contributions, all of which he happened before turning 23, have led to two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and put him in the company of his boyhood idol Kobe Bryant.
Tatum’s current averages of 25.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.2 assists through 49 games are all career-highs that stand out all the more considering the obstacles he had to overcome this season. He contracted COVID-19 back in January and sat out five games. Boston went 2-3 in his absence and suffered their worst loss of the season, a 30-point drubbing at the hands of the New York Knicks.
When he returned, he struggled to regain his pre-COVID-19 form and it reflected in his numbers. His road to recovery has also been among the well-documented cases, as he has frequently mentioned the significant changes he underwent post-COVID-19.
In this crucial and final stretch of the season, Tatum is slowly but surely returning to form at the right time. His last three games (all of which have been Celtics wins) saw him score 53 (a career-high), 28, and 32 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively. His full offensive array of skills were on display especially in the comeback win against the Timberwolves, who were forced to pick their poison in either letting Tatum score or create plays for his teammates.
All this, however, has come at a peculiar time for the Celtics.
Compared to past seasons, Boston is fighting to get out of the lower playoff seed logjam that has become all the more complicated with the play-in tournament for this season. They have been hovering above and below .500 for much of the season due to injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols that have forced them to shuffle lineups and have some games moved. The fluidity of the situation has then made their efforts to catch up to the frontrunners in the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks much more difficult.
Currently, the Celtics are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference at 29-26. The teams ahead of them (the 76ers, Nets, Bucks, and Atlanta Hawks) are stacked with talent, depth, or even both. Meanwhile, the four teams behind them (the Heat, Knicks, Charlotte Hornets, and Indiana Pacers) are at the most three games behind them.
Right now, Boston needs Tatum more than the other way around, to the point that the Celtics will only go as far as he goes. Many pundits have said that Tatum has taken the leap already, but it seems as if he’s not done yet. At age 23, the two-time all-star has yet to even enter his prime and considering his exponential development and how he holds himself to such a high standard, he can still take another quantum leap. For all his offensive exploits, many forget that he helps the team in other aspects of the game as his current per-game averages of 7.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists are also career-highs.
Growing up, Tatum looked up to Bryant and his game is just another reflection of his idolization of the late Laker great. The jab step made famous by Bryant and Michael Jordan? It’s become Tatum’s patented move as well. Imitation is indeed the greatest form of flattery and knowing that Kobe himself overcame many setbacks, Tatum has the opportunity to take another page out of Bryant’s book.
Analytics lean towards Tatum over Bryant largely due to shot selection and style of play, but the similarities stand out when you compare their numbers from age 21 and 22 seasons.
*Stats through 49 games in the ongoing 2021-2022 NBA Season
The uncertainties and the circumstances that were brought about by the global pandemic have affected NBA players and teams to varying degrees. In what is shaping up to be their toughest season since 2014, the Boston Celtics face an uphill climb to the playoffs. Having an elite talent in Jayson Tatum certainly helps their postseason chances.