The assumption is Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are inseparable, the dynamic millennial duo tabbed to lift the Celtics to a championship level for several years.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge scored big when he took Brown third overall in the 2016 NBA Draft and swapped out of the No. 1 overall pick last summer and took Tatum third overall.
In an injury plagued year that began with Gordon Hayward breaking his leg five minutes into the season, Brown and Tatum essentially saved the season. Brown took a major first step from his rookie season and became a starter, scorer, and staunch defender.
The lanky Tatum took about 10 games to show why Ainge preferred him over guard Markelle Fultz and Tatum finished third in the rookie of the year voting and was one of the Celtics’ best players throughout their run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Tatum averaged a team-high 18.5 points during the postseason; Brown averaged 18 points.
Both return with similar goals, primarily to prove they are better and more complete than last season. But their positions are similar. The return of Hayward could cut into their playing time, and the rest of the NBA now knows about Tatum’s midrange game and Brown’s improved 3-point shot and ball-handling ability.
Both are quick to point out their differences off the floor. Brown is an old soul who speaks eloquently and thoughtfully, a future leader in the NBA Players Association who still has yet to hire an agent because of his against-the-grain mentality. Tatum is a pure hooper, deeply proud of his St. Louis roots, a 20-year-old father and dedicated student of the game. Brown is talkative. Tatum is soft-spoken.
“Building good chemistry off the court translates to winning and playing well together,” Tatum said. “All good players and good teams coexist and enjoy being around each other. We cool. JB, he’s a little different, he’s a funny guy but I can’t hang out too much. I got a kid. So our lives are a little different in that aspect.”
Tatum and Brown understand the importance of their relationship, their bond. They realize the hefty responsibility of helping to carry the franchise on their shoulders, eventually. It’s still Kyrie Irving’s, Hayward’s and Al Horford’s team but the Celtics won’t succeed this season unless Brown and Tatum take steps forward.
“I welcome the pressure. I don’t shy away from it,” Brown said. “If they expect you to shy away from it because you’re too young, I challenge that. I embrace that. I embrace the responsibility that the organization and the coaching staff puts on me. I think Jayson does, too. I don’t think we shy away from that at all.”
Brown and Tatum have had substantive conversations about their roles. They realize that it will be a few years before they reach their primes but their patience is short. They want to flourish now because now could be the Celtics time.
“We just come and we want to make a difference now. We’re not looking at it like we’re only 19, we’re only 20,” Brown said. “We don’t see it that way, the way the world sees it. We’re young and we want to lead and be part of winning now and I think we showed that we could do it last year and now it’s time to take it to the next step.”
The consensus around the NBA is that Tatum will become a top-five player. He spent his summer working out in various cities and then got a personal tutoring session from his hero, Kobe Bryant. During the playoffs, although Tatum was flourishing, Bryant broke down the rookie’s fundamental weaknesses and mistakes in an ESPN video. Tatum watched the video at least 30 times.
He is excited about unleashing his improvements and said he understands the responsibility placed upon him and Brown. And they’re not afraid.
“I don’t think it’s any pressure. We have high expectations for ourselves. We’re up for the challenge,” Tatum said. “It doesn’t get any better than this, especially early in your career. Just trying to compete for a championship. Everybody is excited for the season to start again. Guys are really, really excited. We pretty much got the same team so having the same team is a big help as well.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he doesn’t view the relationship between Brown and Tatum any differently than any other of his players. Irving, the former No. 1 overall pick who supported LeBron James for multiple title runs, said every starter will have to sacrifice, understanding that Brown and Tatum are no longer pups and they will demand shots and more primary roles.
And the Celtics will have to accommodate them.
“JT [Tatum] wasn’t expected to score 18 last year. JB [Brown] wasn’t expected to take 12 shots last year,” Irving said. “Gordon was expected to be our second scorer and now you think about that triangle of guys and Gordon’s coming back trying to prove himself. JT is trying to be at that next level. JB is trying to be at that next level. So they all want to do everything and at the end of the day, we can’t all do everything, including myself.
“Here, those guys and their relationship is going to be what they make it. It’s a competition between them, obviously, so you just want to see them go at each other in practice and make that translation into games. If you’re going at one of the best wings in the league every single day, it can only help you.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.