It’s hard to believe Jayson Tatum is only 24 years old. The Celtics’ fifth-year veteran in many ways is the central figure of the franchise, blamed when the team loses, praised when it wins.
Luckily, Tatum has diligently hit the weight room in recent years, so that he can better handle the heavy lifting in this organization. He is just approaching his prime, despite three All-Star appearances and a resumé that matches any player of his age in the NBA.
The Celtics, however, needed more from Tatum this season. They needed a more vocal presence, a better leader, and playmaker. Tatum’s transformation has been a meticulous process. He came into the NBA robotic at times, and as a shy and timid presence who chose to do his talking with his play.
That has changed. As Tatum’s game and star power have grown, so has his voice. He is one of the team’s unquestioned leaders, encouraging teammates to expand their games, no longer only consumed with his own growth.
“Jayson’s been there for me, personally, he’s been huge all year,” forward/center Al Horford said. “He’s in my ear and giving me confidence constantly to be aggressive on offense to keep shooting the ball for ups and downs for me. He’s been that voice that’s been always encouraging me.”
Horford described a moment in the third quarter against Atlanta on March 1 when he drained a 3-pointer to cap a furious run. After the ball swished through the hoop, Tatum, standing at midcourt, turned away from Horford and unleashed a roar, perhaps muted by the 19,000-plus going crazy at TD Garden. But Horford heard it clearly.
“For him, in a moment like that, I was excited but you could tell how excited he was and how much that fuels our team,” Horford said. “It’s one of those things where he has taken a step forward in that regard. He’s being more vocal. He’s letting us know what he’s thinking, how he’s feeling.
“For me, it gives me a lot of confidence, it’s encouraging to know that he has my back and he’s really trying to win. He’s trying to do things the right way. That was a huge momentum shift when that happened. Seeing him that excited, that engaged, it’s good for our group.”
Tatum’s growth physically and emotionally is apparent. He was baby faced entering the NBA in 2017, a 19-year old with NBA offensive skills but still trying to adjust to the league physically. His facial hair, which was barely visible as a rookie, is now a full-grown beard.
“The beard part, for sure,” he said smiling. “I remember those times praying it would grow overnight. But some things take time.”
Tatum refused to reflect or bask in his accomplishments. There’s so much more left to do, but it’s apparent he’s growing as a leader and a man.
“It’s hard to reflect while you’re in it. I kind of feel like you start reflecting and you get complacent,” he said. “Whereas for me, I’m always trying to outdo myself. Whether I score 50 or 60, the next game, I don’t carry that over. It’s kind of whatever happened is in the past. It’s all about what you’re going to do now, what you’re going to do next. That’s just kind of the mind-set that I carry. Hopefully 15 years from now, when I hang them up, I can have a lot of special things to reflect on. Meantime just focus on what’s next.”
The relationship with Ime Udoka has grown exponentially. They were cool from their time with USA Basketball, but Udoka has intensified their relationship by becoming more of a mentor and coach, pushing Tatum to improve in all facets, including his vocal leadership.
“Obviously we came into the season knowing each other from USA Basketball but kind of just spending each day with somebody and kind of learning each other,” Tatum said. “Just getting to know each other in this environment. I have a lot of respect for him and how he approaches things, his basketball mind and I definitely acknowledge and know since Day One, he’s pushing me to the best I can be and I appreciate that.”
Tatum’s vocal presence and his increased attention to defense are drawing the attention of his teammates, including one of his biggest supporters and occasional critics.
“I think I can speak for this whole team, we definitely have [noticed more of a fire],” Marcus Smart said. “The way that he carries himself. We know that he can score the ball at a phenomenal, superb rate but to come down and to use his frame to be able to lock up opposing wing players that he’s been doing is something we are very excited about and we love to see it from him. And it’s only going to allow him to become better and his game go to another level. That passion is going come, whether you want it to or not.”