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Celtics

Celtics roster evaluations, Part 3: Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and regular starters

Jayson Tatum (0) and Jaylen Brown (7) continued their ascensions this season, but for Kemba Walker (8) the year was a mixed bag.
Jayson Tatum (0) and Jaylen Brown (7) continued their ascensions this season, but for Kemba Walker (8) the year was a mixed bag.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

This is the third in a three-part series of individual evaluations of the Celtics. This section includes regular starters. Players are graded based on the expectations within their roles.

Part 2: Bench players and occasional starters

Jayson Tatum: A

Tatum took another step toward superstardom, and the fact that his five-year contract extension does not start until next year is the primary reason Boston’s future remains bright despite recent turbulence.

With Gordon Hayward’s departure and Kemba Walker’s frequent absences, Tatum received more attention from defenses than ever, and his numbers improved across the board despite all of the traps and double teams. He did not force the issue, though, and averaged a career-high 4.3 assists as his teammates took advantage of the extra space he created for them. He has also emerged as one of Boston’s better defenders — a long, versatile wing with a good grasp of Boston’s concepts.

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Jayson Tatum salutes the crowd after Boston's Game 3 playoff win over the Nets.
Jayson Tatum salutes the crowd after Boston's Game 3 playoff win over the Nets. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

But he is most lethal as a scorer, and he saved his best for last, reaching the 50-point mark three times over a 29-day span that started on April 30 and ended with his powerful 50-point night in the Celtics’ Game 3 win over the Nets despite the absence of Jaylen Brown. He is still just 23.

Kemba Walker: B

Until a bone bruise sidelined him for the final two games of the Celtics’ opening-round playoff loss to Brooklyn, Walker had mostly made it through this season in good health, allaying at least some concerns about his troublesome left knee.

But it was unclear whether this was a result of a strong recovery, or the fact that the Celtics continued to tread carefully with him. Walker missed the first 11 games of the season as he finished a knee strengthening program, and he sat out the second game of every back-to-back set. The inconsistent appearances may have made it more challenging for Boston’s starters to develop chemistry.

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Walker, who turned 31 last month, remains a bit of a defensive liability, but that is nothing new. He averaged 19.3 points and 4.9 assists per game, fine numbers for a clear third option behind Tatum and Brown. The problem is that he is not being paid as a third option, as he still has two seasons remaining on his four-year, $141-million max deal that could considerably affect Boston’s roster flexibility.

Jaylen Brown: A-minus

Jaylen Brown's improved passing and ball handling helped him earn his first All-Star nod this season.
Jaylen Brown's improved passing and ball handling helped him earn his first All-Star nod this season.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Brown was a deserving first-time All-Star this season, and while Tatum remains the superior of the two, Brown probably showed more growth on offense. His previously rocky ball handling turned into an asset and his passing improved, helping him average a career-best 3.4 assists, or nearly the total of his previous two seasons combined.

Brown’s free-throw shooting was a considerable weakness earlier in his career. When he shot just 65.8 percent two years ago it was a mental issue, and he seems to have fixed it, connecting on 76.4 percent of his tries this year. The renewed confidence allowed him to attack the rim more aggressively. He also made a career-high 39.7 percent of his 3-pointers, including a blistering 52.6 percent from the left corners. After Brown suffered a season-ending wrist injury, the Celtics missed his defensive physicality mightily in the playoffs.

Brown and Tatum should now work on playing more effectively off of each other rather than taking turns in isolation. They have a chance to be one of the NBA’s most potent duos for years to come.

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Marcus Smart: B

Smart is most known for his defense, but he is one of the more underrated playmakers and floor generals in the NBA, too. This year he led the Celtics with a career-high 5.7 assists per game. At both ends of the court he constantly points at and instructs his teammates to ensure everyone is in the right spots.

But the two-time first-team All-Defense performer can’t be pleased with Boston’s slippage in that area this year. The Celtics’ defense, ranked among the top six in the NBA in each of the last three seasons, fell to 13th. And the numbers when Smart was on the court were in line with the rest of the team’s performance.

Also, after improving his 3-point shooting for three years in a row, Smart’s numbers have fallen in two consecutive seasons, as he finished this year at just 33 percent. Smart will be an unrestricted free agent after next season.

Robert Williams: B

The ascensions of Tatum and Brown have been obvious, so it could be argued that the potential Williams flashed this season was actually the most promising development for the Celtics.

He averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes, tied for the second most in the NBA among players who appeared in at least 50 games. He was such a dangerous lob threat that the Celtics became comfortable throwing the ball anywhere in his vicinity, and most often he completed the task with little difficulty. The third-year big man has evolved into one of Boston’s better passers, too, even if his decision-making could still use some work.

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Robert Williams III provided a spark at both ends of the floor for the Celtics this past season.
Robert Williams III provided a spark at both ends of the floor for the Celtics this past season.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Still, those bursts of promise were overshadowed by another injury-marred campaign. He sat out most of last season because of a hip bone edema, and this year he missed time due to knee, hip, ankle, and toe injuries, as well as a bout with COVID-19. Concerns about his health also limited his playing time when he was available, as he played just 18.9 minutes per contest. Williams is eligible for an extension this summer, and it will be fascinating to see how the two sides approach negotiations given his mixture of potential and injury risk.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.