It sometimes seems as if an NBA player’s offseason workout did not really happen unless it is posted on Instagram. Five-on-five scrimmages, shooting drills, and weight room sessions are constantly provided as evidence of a work ethic, or just to look cool.
It’s never wise to glean much from these displays, but they do provide fodder. So when Celtics forward Jayson Tatum shared pictures of himself lifting weights last month and it appeared he had bulked up, it created a bit of a stir.
Of course, this was an abbreviated offseason, and Tatum spent most of it on the court for USA Basketball. There wasn’t really time to enter strongman competitions. Tatum, for his part, mostly brushed off the buzz about his biceps.
“Same stuff I’ve always been doing, just working out and getting ready for the season,” he said. “I think I’m just getting older; my body is starting to fill out a little more as I mature. So, I don’t think necessarily I’ve done anything too different. I’ve had more time to work out since I got back, but I think my body is just filling out more.”
After a slow start in the Celtics’ 98-97 preseason win over the Magic at TD Garden on Monday night, Tatum appeared focused on using his physicality to give Orlando trouble. Five of the All-Star’s first attempts were jump shots — one was an air-ball, another missed badly, and just one went in.
In the middle of that stretch, though, Tatum unfurled one of the more impressive plays of the night. He used a quick first step to bulldoze past Magic rookie Franz Wagner for a dunk. Later, he backed down Terrence Ross and overpowered two defenders to score inside before charging forward and challenging two more defenders near the hoop. Even though the second shot missed, the move that preceded it was notable.
“We like him in a lot of spots,” Celtics head coach Ime Udoka said. “So we’ve worked on a few things and we’re starting to implement a few more sets to get them in those spots, but we felt he had a size advantage over their smaller wings, especially in the first quarter with their starting group. And so they’re really crowding him on the perimeter trying to take him off his spot, so we got him some easy looks out of timeouts, and I think that helped him get going somewhat in the second quarter.”
Tatum was being guarded by the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Gary Harris for much of the game, and the Celtics were focused on exploiting that size mismatch. With 9:40 left in the third quarter, Tatum used two strong dribbles to attack Harris on the left baseline before rising and throwing it down over Magic center Wendell Carter Jr.
It wasn’t quite a clean dunk, but the crowd reacted as if it had been one, appreciating Tatum’s show of strength.
“We talked about playing big-boy ball down there, and then he got to the basket quite a few times, got some nice dunks and things of that nature,” Udoka said. “But we want him to be able to score from everywhere.”
Tatum has spoken often over the past few seasons about using his physicality to get to the foul line more frequently. His free-throw attempts have ticked up in each of the last two years and he took a career-high 5.3 per game last year. But there is still room for growth to become an elite free-throw generator like Jimmy Butler (8 attempts per game last season) or Kevin Durant (6.8). Tatum took five foul shots in just 25 minutes against the Magic.
“Getting downhill, getting to the basket, that goes hand-in-hand with shooting more free throws,” Tatum said. “That’s just a big part of being efficient in today’s game.”