Amid all the organizational changes in Boston, Jayson Tatum remains focused on ascending into stardom while pairing with teammate Jaylen Brown to bring the Celtics a long-awaited championship.
Tatum will begin the first year of his max contract extension in October and is one of the prominent players for Team USA as it seeks another gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 23.
He was in full support of the hiring of Ime Udoka as the new coach and realizes changes were expected — and perhaps needed — after such a difficult season, where the Celtics finished 36-36 and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
“It was tough, just everything that we had to endure, everything that kind of happened,” Tatum said of last season. “It put in perspective and made me appreciate those good years that we had and we made those deep playoff runs. It’s not always guaranteed and it made me appreciate that.”
Tatum said he is 100 percent healthy after battling COVID-19 and its aftereffects for the final five months of the season. He was even using an inhaler prior to games to increase his wind. Tatum said he approached full health during the Celtics’ series against the Nets, and then took some much-needed time off to rest his body before Team USA practices began last week.
Joining him in Las Vegas to work with the Select Team is Udoka, with whom Tatum is forming a bond. Tatum was consulted by former coach and new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens about coaching candidates, and he endorsed Udoka.
“I think it was big,” Tatum said. “I think all of the candidates and finalists would have been great decisions. Extremely happy about Ime. I’ve known him for a little while. He’s extremely motivated and I think everybody has a good feeling about this. I think this is going to be great.”
Tatum said he talked with Brown during the coaching search and the two shared ideas of the type of coach they wanted.
“They asked for our input and I know from my perspective, I gave input, but never, ‘You need to do this or you need to do that,’ ” Tatum said. “That’s what they get paid to do. Whoever they hired, I will go out there and do what I got to do.”
Tatum said he fully embraces his role as franchise cornerstone. Following the trade of Kemba Walker, Tatum is now the highest-paid Celtic and most identifiable player.
“That’s the position I’m in now,” he said. “I’ve got to embrace it because I’m invested and I’m a part of all of this and [I embrace] just having my hands on. I got a feel for things going on with the team and the organization and I think it’s only right.”
There have been questions as to whether Tatum and Brown play the same position and whether the two can not only reach the next level together, but help make each other better players. Tatum said they have discussed their role in helping the Celtics return to prominence.
“That’s the goal [to make each other better],” Tatum said. “Both highly motivated and driven guys that want to be the best they can be. We just really want to win. We both really care about winning at our core. That’s the start of it. We’re going to try our best to figure it out.”
A completely connected Tatum and Brown make the Celtics a championship contender. Tatum said his primary goal is to win a title.
“That’s always been the goal, to get there and win one,” he said. “We always talk about all the banners that we have and seeing them every day at the Garden or at practice. That’s all that really matters, especially in Boston, is getting another championship.”
It was apparent during this past season that Stevens had lost touch with the team, making the coaching change perhaps welcomed by some players. Stevens interviewed a large group of candidates, several of them men of color, and Tatum said it’s important to be able to connect and bond closely with the head coach.
“I can easily relate to someone like [Ime] in different areas, someone of color, someone who played in the league,” he said. “Someone closer in age. The conversations are naturally going to be different. That doesn’t make it better or worse, just different.”
Tatum understands he’s the face of the franchise and is fully prepared to accept all the responsibility and scrutiny. At 23, Tatum has already reached two All-Star Games, and amassed games of 53, 60, and 50 points in a six-week span in April and May.
He wants to be one of the greats.
“It’s what I always wanted,” he said. “No matter how old or young I was, I never looked at myself as one of the best young players in the league. I never like when people say that. I feel like I’m one of the best players. That’s what I envisioned when I was younger. That’s what I worked for. I never wanted to just get to the NBA and be in the league, I wanted to be one of the best players.”
There were many NBA observers who were shocked Tatum wasn’t named to the All-NBA team. Being left off cost Tatum a $33-million contract increase, and the slight has been a source of anger and motivation. Tatum was incensed about not making All-NBA.
“Yeah, I was mad about it and it had nothing to do with the money,” he said. “I just felt like I increased my assists, my points, my rebounds, I clearly had a better season this year than last season. With COVID and how it affected our team, I guess people held that against me. I clearly should have made one of those teams, but it will happen, but just get better for next year.
“How could you watch my game and the season I had and think I wasn’t one of the best 15 players?”