There are some players that just have the ‘it’ factor. Some players have the extra gear in their skill set that only the great ones have. There are some players that have the type of transcendent skill set that leave scouts, coaches and managers drooling over the possibility of having the next great one in the league on their team. I’m sorry to disappoint fans of the 76ers, who traded their rights away to the Celtics for Markelle Fultz, but that guy is Jayson Tatum and he has arrived in the bubble.
Everybody knows about the stellar numbers he is recording on the stat sheet, but today we are going to look at how and why Tatum has ascended so quickly. Between Tatum’s one-on-one workouts with the late great Kobe Bryant, his growing level of playoff experience and sheer diversity in his skill set, he has the tools to effectively lead the Celtics deep in this year’s playoffs.
The part of Tatum’s game that really stands out is his ability to hit the pull-up jump shot from mid-range, which is quickly becoming a lost art in the game of basketball. A mid-range shot is defined as one taken between the restricted area of the paint and the three-point line which is anywhere from five to 20 feet from the basket. Teams have become so reliant on getting to the rim or shooting the long ball because of analytics and the increasing popularity of zone defenses that the mid-range shot is now becoming a more statistically viable option. All the stars of the league have the ability to hit this shot because it is the one that is most open when defenses tighten up during the playoffs. Many teams like the Rockets have become so specialized in taking and defending opposing 3-pointers that they don’t have the personnel to guard guys who are a dual-threat from different ranges. This makes the Tatum and the Celtics very unpredictable to guard and prepare for from a coaching standpoint. While shooting the midrange jumper in bulk is still not advisable, it’s becoming more and more apparent that having a star with the skill to shoot it is still a critical component to becoming an NBA champion.
Analyzing the NBA champions of the last 15 years, we see a clear pattern in their stars being able to shoot mid-range jumpers. Last year’s Raptors had Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, the Warriors had the splash brothers, the Cavaliers had LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, the Spurs had Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker, and the Heat again had LeBron and Dwyane Wade and so on. With Tatum’s size, ability to create opportunities for himself and teammates off the dribble and this ability to shoot comfortably from anywhere on the court, the Celtics are poised to be a problem for any team in the playoffs.
Tatum leads a team that epitomizes this mindset, as the Celtics have downright cooked opponents with their jump shots since the NBA restart. After cruising into the playoffs as the third seed, the undermanned Sixers fell victim to this barrage of jump shots. The threat of the midrange also makes big men come out of the paint to contest, creating opportunities for easy backdoor cut layups and makes them susceptible to pump fakes, resulting in early foul trouble. This surprise factor would throw any team that can’t match this offensive production into disarray, especially combined with the Celtics lockdown perimeter defense courtesy of the several talented wing players on the roster.
After two games with the Toronto Raptors, it seems as if they have no answer as well. The Raptors, who sport the second-ranked defense by points per possession, institute a system of aggressive ball pressure to force the opposing team into bad shots and turnovers. This works impeccably against teams that constantly swing the ball around the perimeter and look for open threes. However, the Celtics have been coached to take what the defense gives them. This Brad Stevens philosophy sounds like something a high school coach would advise, but it works at the highest level of basketball. Tatum’s ability to slash to the basket and rise up to shoot in one fluid motion creates defensive mismatches and forces defensive players out of position. The Celtics actually use the Raptors’ athleticism to close out on the three against them to create these easy midrange looks at the basket. Additionally, this added dimension of the Celtics’ offense makes Raptors defenders hesitate when playing their highly active swarming defensive game plan, opening up chances for corner threes and sometimes direct lanes to the basket.
While the Celtics play a beautiful brand of team-oriented basketball, routinely having multiple players in double figures, Tatum serves as the catalyst for a squad ready to shock fans and analysts alike with a run for the Larry O’Brien trophy.