Early last week, Celtics All-Star Jayson Tatum returned to the team’s practice facility for the first time since it was shuttered at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
There were plenty of safety rules in place, and it made the environment different. There is usually a coterie of observers and helpers when Tatum is shooting jump shots. Maybe two coaches to rebound, another to offer instruction, and sometimes even a member of the medical staff to oversee it all.
But in this case, there was just assistant coach Jay Larranaga, wearing a mask and gloves and wondering whether he still had the legs to chase down the errant shots all by himself.
"I’m lucky Tatum doesn’t ever miss,” Larranaga said. “So I just stay under the hoop. He looks like he’s in midseason form right now.”
Tatum was roaring through his first All-Star season and was primed for his first turn as the team’s top playoff option before the league halted play. He was averaging 23.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.9 assists, and then those numbers were frozen in time.
Tatum did not have a basketball hoop at his Boston home, and like so many other NBA players, he was left to wonder whether this season would even be seen through to its finish. Despite that uncertainty, there did not ever appear to be a time when Tatum lost his focus, according to Larranaga.
“It’s frustrating when you’re in the midst of a really great season and having the responsibility that he likes and has wanted to have on the team,” Larranaga said. “It’s frustrating to have the season interrupted.
“But he’s a pretty amazing athlete and player that, regardless of circumstance, regardless of if he’s able to work out or takes a few days off, his consistency day-to-day is pretty extraordinary.”
Larranaga said Tatum also has been focused on self-growth during this lengthy hiatus. He has been reading more, and Larranaga has tried to keep him engaged with text messages that range from simple check-ins to workout suggestions.
Larranaga recently came across footage of an old college game between Tennessee and LSU that featured future NBA standouts Allan Houston and Chris Jackson (who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf). Larranaga said Houston and Tatum have similar games, and Abdul-Rauf was a relentless scorer —something Tatum does quite well — so he sent it along for Tatum to study.
“I think there’s some things from Allan’s game that Jayson can use,” Larranaga said. “And Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was like Steph Curry before Steph Curry, and a lot of players in the NBA today might not even know who he is.”
As time passed, Tatum got a hoop at his home, and it became clear that the NBA would, in fact, return. The Celtics will be among the 22 teams expected to resume the season at Disney World in about a month.
Around the league, there are some concerns that players might have gotten out of shape, or will have trouble flipping a switch to once again being ruthless competitors after spending so much time on their couches.
But for Tatum, Larranaga said, none of that is expected to be an issue.
“I have no doubt that when the basketball starts, he’s going to push all the right buttons,” he said. “He’s going to be ready. He’s treated his career very, very seriously and professionally since he was, like, 13.
"So whatever the timing is, he’s going to have a really good feel for it. Whenever we start playing, I don’t think he’ll miss a beat.”