At the tail of a back-to-back in late November, against a Charlotte Hornets team trying desperately not to finish as the NBA’s worst defense, it became clear not only how much fear Jayson Tatum strikes into opponents, but how much he’s embraced leveraging it.
Tatum was standing in the corner, the ball across the floor in the hands of a surveying Marcus Smart. But Hornets wing Kelly Oubre was hugging Tatum as if a pass could come any second.
Meanwhile, Grant Williams was a few steps away, popping to the 3-point line while his defender, P.J. Washington, still had two feet in the paint.
Instead of springing out to get a pass from Smart, Tatum darted in to keep Washington pinned as far away from Williams as possible.
Tatum’s screen was like a gift to Williams, who had all the space in the world, especially after Washington went flying to keep Williams from letting a 3-pointer fly. Williams drove to the basket, Charlotte’s broken defense collapsed, and Williams kicked to the opposite corner, where Derrick White was waiting to knock down an open three.
By the time the ball split the net, Tatum was at halfcourt, admiring how he dismantled Charlotte’s defense without ever touching the ball.
“It’s difficult for a defender because you don’t really want to leave him and leave his body because of how dynamic he is,” White said. “So, he does a good job of moving without the ball and trying to put them in that confusion of, ‘Is he screening? Is he slipping?’ So as talented as he is, he just keeps moving without the ball, trying to keep the defense off his body.”
Tatum scored 35 points that night. He also had a career-high four screen assists. That’s not a coincidence.
The golden rule is as old as time, and basketball has its own version. But instead of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” it’s more like, “Help yourself by helping your teammates.”
White remembers his high school coach passing down the message years ago. It’s almost counterintuitive for a scorer, but it’s a hoop truism.
“My coach in high school told me, ‘If you want to get open, set a screen,’ ” White said. “So it kind of goes hand-in-hand.”
But screening has the stigma of dirty work — and stars don’t do dirty work. So, how do you convince star players — who are used to having the ball in their hands more than anyone else — that screening not only helps teammates, it helps the star?
“I didn’t convince him,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said of Tatum. “He did it on his own. He knows the natural progression of him becoming a better player, a more well-rounded player. That’s an area where he wants to get better at. So, he’s worked really hard at that.”
That work has put him in a class of selfless scorers. Last season, Tatum set a career-high 38 screen assists in 76 games. In 29 games through Tuesday, he already had 29.
This season, Tatum, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Julius Randle, and Stephen Curry are the only players in the league with more than 500 shot attempts and 20 screen assists.
Take players 6 feet 9 inches and bigger out of the equation and no player in the league has taken as many shots as Tatum (613) and helped his teammates get open for more shots (29 screen assists). Jaylen Brown (577 shots, 18 screen assists) is right behind the aforementioned group.
After years of trying to shoulder the load on their individual abilities, Tatum and Brown have reached a point where the threat they pose even without the ball can create shots for everyone else.
In Malcolm Brogdon’s experience, stars don’t set screens.
“Usually not,” he said. “Usually not.”
Since 2016, 76 players (non-bigs) have taken at least 1,000 shots in a season and only five (Curry, Randle, Harrison Barnes, Zion Williamson, Tobias Harris) have finished with more than 100 screen assists.
But Tatum and Brown’s selflessness is part of the reason the Celtics’ offense has been so potent this season.
“I think we have a special team,” Brogdon said. “Special guys in our first and second option in Tatum and Brown that are willing to sacrifice, willing to make the extra pass, willing to screen so that other guys can get going, as well.”
Last season, the Celtics let their defense fuel a Finals run while pushing Tatum and Brown to the limit with drives to the basket. This season, Mazzulla has found ways to use his two top weapons off the ball to open up quality looks around the floor. An action might look like a double screen to get Tatum out of the corner, but it actually opens up a 3-pointer for Blake Griffin. And another for White.
“It gives us a little bit of versatility on the offensive end,” Mazzulla said. “It helps our screening, it helps our spacing, and it gives us some creativity. It’s been really good for us. Our off-ball frequency is high. Our off-ball points per possession was high earlier — it’s lower now — we’ve just got to work to continue to be creative with that and get some more points out of that.”
The gold standard for a scorer who leverages his presence on the floor to help create shots for his teammates has long been Curry. Prior to injuring his shoulder a week ago, Curry expectedly led the Warriors in shots (524), but he also led all the Warriors’ non-bigs in screen assists (26).
For years, the Warriors’ offense has benefitted from Curry’s off-ball brilliance. Last season, his 69 screen assists led to 157 points. The season before, Curry led the league in scoring, and he got teammates open 76 times for 162 points. In 2018-19, his 65 screen assists led to 151 points. In 2016-17, he had a career-high 109 screen assists that put 240 points on the board.
The Celtics saw firsthand in last season’s Finals the power of having a star cause chaos away from the ball.
“It kind of puts a challenge on the defense,” White said. “I think more teams are using it.”
The Celtics were 18th in the league in screen assists a season ago. They’re sixth this season. They’re building an offense that’s dangerous whether or not Tatum and Brown have the ball.
“I think that’s the beauty of this team is the versatility,” Brogdon said. “We have guys in Tatum and Brown who are your first- and second-option shot-makers that are also going to be screeners a lot of the time and sacrifice. That’s the beauty of this team.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.