It’s easy to overlook that the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum just turned 24 and still remains years away from his prime as a basketball player.
After all, the third pick of the 2017 NBA Draft burst onto the scene as a 19-year-old rookie and immediately led the Boston Celtics to a memorable run to Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Tatum celebrated his birthday with a statement 120-107 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the third seed in the Western Conference, where he outdueled his fellow rising star Ja Morant. The three-time NBA All-Star posted 37 points on 14-of-25 shooting together with six rebounds and five assists while Morant had 38 points, four rebounds, and seven assists.
It was quite an impressive win for the resurgent Celtics, given that Jaylen Brown was sidelined after spraining his ankle in their previous game. They have picked up where they left off and won four of their five contests since the All-Star break. Tatum has been a major reason for that as he has scored at least 24 points in each of those matches.
With their latest win, Boston is now 38-27 and fifth place in the tight Eastern Conference race. They are 2.5 games ahead of the seventh place Toronto Raptors and the play-in tournament though, more importantly, they are only 4.5 games out of the top seed.
The Celtics’ improbable turnaround from a 17-19 record when the calendar flipped from 2021 to 2022 has been a major storyline around the league over the past few weeks, especially during their nine-game winning streak in the build-up to All-Star weekend.
This has truly been a team effort for this team as their defense, highlighted by their elite ability to switch, has been the biggest difference-maker for them. However, the growth of Tatum during this stretch, both as an on-court leader and two-way player, cannot be overlooked.
While he has already appeared in the Conference Finals twice in four seasons and has yet to miss the playoffs during his career, he has never actually had to carry the burden of leadership until this year. It clearly weighed on Tatum earlier in this campaign as he averaged only 23.3 points per game in 15 November appearances. The low point of his–and Boston’s–season came when Marcus Smart publicly called him and Brown out for what he perceived as their selfishness.
It took almost three months for them to pull themselves together and start this blistering run that they are on, yet Tatum is no stranger to resilience.
Last year’s first round exit was the first time since 2016 that the Celtics did not make it to the semifinals, although the early elimination was more because of the injuries that beset the team more than anything else. Among the sidelined were Brown, Robert Williams, and Kemba Walker which left Tatum with no choice but to take over as he averaged 30.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in five games against the Brooklyn Nets.
Tatum punctuated his strong performance with a 50-point eruption in their lone win of the series, which came in Game Three, and he followed it up with a 40-point game in their next match. It was quite a remarkable turnaround for Tatum, given that the side effects of his severe bout with COVID-19 in January still lingered several months later. He still had to use an inhaler to help with his breathing and was still far from recovered during the Brooklyn series.
Almost a year later, Tatum seems to have fully recovered and has further improved on the court. His career statistics and playoff resume are notable, especially when taking into consideration his age. Tatum is actually younger than Indiana Pacers rookie Chris Duarte and the maturity that he has shown this year–on and off the court–hints that he is still far from reaching his full potential.
The strides that he has made as a team defender and leader do not appear on the stat sheet (His statistics this year remain gaudy though they are relatively unchanged from a year ago), but they do show up in the win column.
Once on the outside-looking-in of the play-in tournament, Boston now has their eyes on a much greater prize. The Eastern Conference is wide open this season and Tatum is exactly the kind of player who can single-handedly tilt the odds in his team’s favor. He has a precious blend of significant playoff experience and youth, which should help him greatly over these next few months as he continues his ascension to the game’s elite.
Tatum has already done great things since he first entered the league almost five years ago and, for the rest of the league, it is frightening to think that the best is yet to come.