25-under-25: Jayson Tatum at No. 2

25-under-25, Boston Celtics

With the Boston Celtics, Jayson Tatum has already cemented himself as one of the best players in the league. What happens next may be out of his control.

Jayson Tatum has been places. Not just any places. Members-only, behind-the-velvet-rope, you-must-be-this-tall-and-successful-to-enter places. He’s been to so many places it’s hard to remember he’s still only 23. Oh, the places he’s gone. Consider Tatum in relation to other all-time great Celtics forwards.

John Havlicek. Dave Cowens. Larry Bird. Paul Pierce. Legends all, all of who led Boston to at least one title. Tatum has yet to win it all, but a look at his fourth-year numbers versus the others confirms his greatness, though a strictly numerical comparison is limited. Havlicek and Cowens played so long ago they were teammates with the primordial ooze. Bird never made 100 3s in a season. Pierce seems to fancy himself a bigger deal than he was, but he ahead of his time as far as the 3-ball: since Pierce attempted more than 500 3s in 2002, only two Celtics have attempted as many in a single season: Pierce’s running mate Antoine Walker in 2002 and 2003 and Isaiah Thomas in 2017.

Greatness is like pornography: we may struggle to define it, but we know it when we see it. Tatum is unquestionably as accomplished individually as any of the Hall of Famers mentioned above were four years into their careers. Tatum averaged a shade more than 26 a game last year, more than any of the other Celtic greats. He’s been more accurate on 2-pointers than any but Bird and on 3-pointers than any but Pierce. Pierce, like Havlicek, was renowned for his diversity of skill; he could some of everything. Tatum put up better rebounding and assist numbers in year four than either of them. Despite the highest usage rate of his career, Tatum had his highest true shooting and lowest turnover percentage ever.

Jayson Tatum is incredible but the Boston Celtics are not your normal measuring stick

But the Boston Celtics are an all-time franchise — not just in the NBA, but in sports. The playoffs are the thing, and at first glance it appears this is where Tatum falls short of the pantheon. Bird won a title his second season. Cowens did his fourth and sixth years. Havlicek was drafted by the Celtics after they’d won four titles in a row, a streak they’d extend to eight after drafting him. Tatum having reached a couple Eastern finals is the Discover card in a pile of Amex black.

This is where focusing on the trees maybe gives you a better sense of the forest that’s growing. Tatum averaged 40 over Boston’s last three playoff games vs. Brooklyn, including 50 in the Celtics’ Game 3 win. Offensively Tatum has been a scoring threat since day one and now he’s the center of the team. His usage rate goes up in the playoffs, as one would expect of any star player. What you don’t expect from many and see from even fewer is their production and efficiency both rising. And yet, after 50 playoff games, Tatum’s postseason shooting percentage is a nick higher than Bird’s. His points go up. His assists go up. His turnovers go down.

Ideally Tatum will soon start scoring less. That would mean Boston surrounded him with enough quality talent to let him pick his spots to dominate, rather than having to dominate for them to succeed. That Tatum has done what he’s done to this point doesn’t predict his future; it does imply he’s great enough to build very successfully around, which is all any team can ask of any player. Where Tatum has been is impressive. Where he goes next depends largely on factors outside his control.

Tatum isn’t the reason why the Celtics go into this season a mid-tier playoff team at best, closer to the Atlantas and New Yorks of the East than the Philadelphias and Milwaukees. Tatum isn’t the reason why the Celtics, who won nearly two-thirds of their games his first three years, slipped to .500 last season. Tatum isn’t the reason why the Celtics, for the third time since drafting him, are introducing a new point guard to the mix. Turnover is difficult to overcome; so is all that turnover downshifting from Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker to Dennis Schröder. Tatum isn’t the new head coach or the new general manager (the old head coach is).

What Tatum is is Boston’s latest generational great, great enough to be the best player on a championship team — if the organization can give him one. If not? Tatum could still help them win, albeit in a different way entirely. The Celtics are built around Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two young stars whose draft rights were acquired via trade. If Tatum and the Celtics aren’t contenders in the next few years, would he consider leaving? His contract is guaranteed through 2025; he holds a $37 million player option for 2026 he’s likely to decline, as he’ll be 28 and in line for a super max. There’s no way to know now where Tatum’s career ends up taking him. Where he’s been has mostly been good. Where he’s going? That story’s still being written.

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