When Jayson Tatum spent this summer in visibility, making public appearances, hanging out at weddings and parties or swimming with his son, Deuce, there was question as to whether he was really working on his game in the time between.
Tatum was coming off a miserable performance in the NBA Finals, where he was locked down by Golden State Warriors forward Andrew Wiggins, unable to help his team in the fourth quarter, nursing a bad wrist and battered body from the long regular season.
But it appears Tatum did put in that summer work, as he has elevated his game in the Celtics’ 7-3 start. Tatum scored 39 points in outdueling Memphis’s Ja Morant in Monday’s 109-106 win.
It wasn’t only the 39 points, and the 19-point second quarter that helped the Celtics to an 11-point halftime lead, it was the defense he played on Morant, who scored 30 points but at times was relegated to settling for 3-point jumpers. That isn’t his preferred shot.
Tatum’s defense against Morant forced the Memphis guard to the baseline, as he was unable to turn the corner for one of his customary acrobatic layups. The prolific scorers in the NBA are too good to be stopped but they can be contained, and the Celtics limited Morant on key possessions.
When he reentered the game with a little more than seven minutes left and the Celtics leading 95-90, Morant’s express purpose was to win the game with buckets. He managed just 3 points as the Celtics pulled away and then held on.
Tatum was partly responsible for the Morant shutdown. And he also contributed a couple of blocked shots and a game-high 11 points in the final period.
“I say it all the time, try to impact winning on both ends,” Tatum said. “Especially playing against other talented players. It’s all about competing and taking on that challenge within the game plan. That’s what I try to do on a nightly basis.”
After 10 games, roughly 12 percent of the season, it’s evident the Celtics have gotten a better and more improved Tatum. He is taking more of the responsibility of the team’s fate on his shoulders. He has scored at least 23 points in each game — and in that game he rested most of the fourth quarter in a blowout win over the Washington Wizards — and is consistently getting to the free throw line.
A primary reason Tatum is averaging 30.1 points per game is he is attempting two more free throws per game than last season and is also considerably better on 2-point shots. Tatum is making 61.5 percent of his 2-pointers through 10 games in comparison with 52.3 percent last season.
These aren’t drastic improvements but good enough to nudge a top-15 player up to top five. Tatum also attempted a combined 36 free throws in wins over Memphis and Chicago. For years, Tatum has felt he was unfairly officiated, unable to get the calls he felt he deserved. That hasn’t been the case the past few games, allowing Tatum to get more easy points without sacrificing his body attacking the rim.
“I still don’t expect to get [calls],” he said. “I still feel grateful when I do get the foul calls and shoot all the free throws. I definitely haven’t gotten to a point where I expect it, yet. Hopefully I get there where it comes a little more often.”
It’s premature for Tatum to say he’s completely upgraded from last year but he has made some changes. Approaching his 25th birthday in four months, Tatum has matured physically, strong enough to drive through contact and finish. And while he still does his share of complaining about calls and non-calls, he has reduced losing concentration and getting beat back on defense. He did pick up a technical Monday, but it was between the first and second quarters.
“I don’t think I’ve necessarily started out this well to start a season off,” he said. “Offseason workouts, changing my diet. I’m getting older and just understanding the game a little bit better than I did a few years ago.”
Elite players have to make contributions in more than just scoring and Tatum takes pride in his rebounding and improved defense. He picked up a key offensive rebound and blocked shot to help close out the victory against the Bulls.
What is apparent is Tatum has taken the next step and he has been helped because of an improved supporting cast that has lightened the offensive load so he can concentrate on defense and rebounding. And he has become a better all-around player, one that is capable of accomplishing his personal and team goals after such a bitter ending to last season.