Jayson Tatum entered his NBA life with a satchel full of goals — becoming an immediate contributor to the Celtics, making the All-Rookie team, and eventually becoming an All-Star.
There was one goal off the court that he steadfastly wanted to achieve.
“My biggest plan was for my rookie deal — not to spend any of my NBA money and just try to make as much money as I can off the court,” said Tatum. “I’ve been able to do that. I haven’t spent any of my Celtic money. I’ve lived off my endorsements.”
And Tatum has piled up endorsements in his first 1½ NBA seasons, as quickly as he has midrange jumpers. Tatum, who turns 21 Sunday, has been in several commercials, including ones for Gatorade, Imo’s Pizza, and Honey Dew Donuts.
“When I picked my agent, I told him I want to do as much off-the-court stuff as I can,” said Tatum. “Right now I’m young, so I try to do everything as much as possible. Sometimes my agent will tell me it’s OK to say no, but for me I don’t really turn anything down. Tomorrow is not promised. You’re not promised the next contract. You want to save all the money you can. So we just want to live off all the stuff we make off the court and still hopefully that next contract comes.”
The building of the Tatum brand started in high school when he was named a three-time Gatorade player of the year in Missouri and his agent, Jeff Wechsler, and marketing partner, Colin Smeeton, immediately pursued a Gatorade deal when Tatum left Duke after one season and became the third overall pick by the Celtics.
“Any time we start working with a new client, it takes a while to understand the personality, understand their likes, sort of what their goals are from a marketing standpoint,” Wechsler said. “Jayson very clearly had already established a personality and brand being the Gatorade player of the year three times. He went to the biggest brand in college basketball in Duke so he was already known when he came out of college. For us it was about keeping him with the brand at the same level.”
But one endorsement he badly wanted was Imo’s Pizza, a chain in his native St. Louis that was Tatum’s favorite as a child.
“One thing that was really important to him was, ‘St. Louis is where I was born and raised and is a place I really care about and I want to have a relationship back home,’ ” Wechsler said. “Everything he’s doing right now is what he expected himself to do and I think that’s what makes him unique. It’s not an arrogance or cockiness. It’s confidence.
“It’s a collective effort. There are brands that I think are great targets. There are brands that he’s asked us to target and there are brands that his family has brought up.”
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As a rookie, Tatum was one of the key reasons why the Celtics, without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, advanced to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. He was named first-team All-Rookie and more endorsement opportunities rolled in.
“This summer a lot of off-the-court stuff came a lot faster than I thought and it had a lot to do with the playoffs,” he said. “But I’m enjoying it.”
Although Tatum is a man of few words with the media, he is not an introvert and his off-the-court personality and on-camera confidence have grown over the past several months.
“Where he’s come from, watching on his production days when he first was drafted to where he is now in the national Gatorade commercial, he’s really grown up,” Smeeton said. “He’s grown up on the court and off the court. For a kid his age, he is so professional, never late, always on time. He is mature well beyond his years.”
Wechsler also represents Irving and his impact on Tatum — because of their Celtic and Duke ties — has fostered Tatum’s maturity and desire to grow his brand. Irving starred in his own movie, “Uncle Drew.” Tatum starred in a commercial ad for the movie: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” The building of the Tatum brand is growing simultaneously with his growth as a player and he’s enjoying both rides.
“Jayson has the benefit of being in the Boston market, which is a great market. Kyrie was in Cleveland after LeBron [James] left and only played 11 games and Kyrie’s explosion has been phenomenal and our whole goal is to make sure we take advantage,” Wechsler said. “Jayson has a plan and he’s really enjoying what he’s doing. We make sure our guys have fun with this. That’s the key.”
BIG MAN EXTRAORDINAIRE
O’Neal: I’d thrive in today’s game
With the traditional big center being phased out of the NBA, or big men being asked to stretch the floor and shoot 3-pointers, Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, perhaps the most physically imposing big man of all time, was asked how he would integrate into the league if he were to enter the draft today.
There haven’t been that many legitimate centers in the NBA since O’Neal retired. Dwight Howard may have been the most recent and he has been relegated to a rebounder because of his inability to shoot. O’Neal was a post-dominant player who would draw double teams. He attempted just 22 3-pointers in his career.
But what if that 7-foot-1-inch O’Neal, weighing 325 pounds as a rookie, came into the league 27 years later? Where the heck would he play in today’s NBA?
“I would have been the Greek Freak [Giannis Antetokounmpo], a guy that can dribble, can go to the hole with force, kick it to guards,” said O’Neal. “I tried to do that every now and then but my coaches weren’t having it. You guys saw me do it. I would be [Antetokounmpo] but I wouldn’t change my game because everybody else is shooting jumpers. I would still do what I do, punish the bigs.”
O’Neal is definitely old school in his thinking about centers. He cringes at a big man hanging out at the 3-point line, waiting for the swing pass. He longs for the day when bigs dribbled to create space and then lofted a short jump hook.
“When bigs shoot jumpers, that just tells me they don’t like the physical contact,” O’Neal said. “I would definitely take advantage of that.”
When asked how many points he would average in today’s NBA, O’Neal said: “Forty. Without the free throws.”
O’Neal maintains he would not have left school following his freshman season, although many NCAA players with his talent leave school after one year.
“My father gave me one of the greatest quotes ever,” he said. “He said you’ve been broke for 18 years, you can be broke for 19 years. I wanted to come out my sophomore year [at LSU] and he asked why, and I said I wanted to get some money. So I would have to be mentally ready, physically ready, and I would have to know what I was getting into.
“I was making so much money [after entering the NBA], I had no idea what I was getting into. So I had to go back to school and figure out what certain things was. Like I never heard of the word ‘FICA’ and I had to go back and ask one of my professors, ‘Who is FICA? Son of a [expletive] just took $2 million off my check. Who is he?’ So there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t know and stuff that these guys need to know.”
O’Neal’s relationship with former teammate Kobe Bryant has been much talked about over the years and how their disjointed partnership may have led to the premature ending of the Lakers’ championship era. “It wasn’t a chemistry issue, it was a difference of opinion,” O’Neal said. “When you have an old-school game, you gotta go inside-outside first. Not outside-inside. My whole thing was if you’re open, just pass it. And as the captain of the ship, if anything goes wrong, [the media is] writing about me. I can’t have that. So it was my job to keep everything together. And like I always tell people, chemistry is important but not really — respect is more important.
“I’m the most dominant big man and you’re going to respect me and throw it to me. And guess what? When I get doubled and you’re the baddest 2-guard in the world, I’m going to throw it back out to you. All that liking and going out to dinner, it doesn’t matter, you just have to respect one another. We never had chemistry issues. We just had a difference of opinion. When you’ve got two alphas that want to take control of the game, you have that. If I had to do it all over, I’d do it the exact same way. The [Finals] we didn’t win we were supposed to, and it was kind of the reason why we split up.”
Leonard, Raptors the ideal match
The Toronto Raptors have been one of the more surprising teams in the league this season. They entered 2018-19 with so many uncertainties. First, general manager Masai Ujiri fired coach Dwane Casey and replaced him with unproven Nick Nurse. Second, Ujiri made the risky move of acquiring Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who had played just nine games the previous season because of a quadriceps injury.
To get Leonard, Ujiri had to give up the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan.
It’s worked out well for the Raptors. Toronto is challenging Milwaukee for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and Leonard has been one of the primary reasons, returning to All-Star form and getting the rest (17 games missed) he desires.
Leonard is a free agent this summer and there has been heavy speculation that he wants to return to his native Southern California. He lives in San Diego in the offseason and played college ball at San Diego State. When asked about Toronto, he often mentions the frigid weather, but he also admires the basketball environment.
“It’s great energy out there,” he said. “The fans come out. They’re supportive. There’s lots to do but it’s just been cold. The snow does look nice on days but you just need a jacket to go outside. I’m not used to it, wearing boots and everything, but as far as the whole city, the team, coaching staff, the organization, the fans, it’s been great.”
Related: After adding Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors pose a real threat to Celtics
Unlike the Celtics’ Kyrie Irving, Leonard has made no commitment to stay in Toronto. He hasn’t offered any hints about his future. Ujiri has tried to make leaving very difficult by not only allowing Leonard to rest his body for certain games, but also by surrounding him with capable players such as Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin, and Jodie Meeks, three trade-deadline acquisitions.
Acquiring Leonard was a major risk Ujiri felt he had to take after the Raptors were dispatched in the playoffs with ease the past two seasons by the Cavaliers. Leonard caused a stir last season in San Antonio by missing nearly all of the season with an injury that the Spurs felt he could play through. Leonard was cleared by Spurs doctors to return weeks before the regular season ended but he didn’t return, and the Spurs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Leonard then asked for a trade, unhappy that many in the organization, including coach Gregg Popovich, doubted the severity of his injury.
Leonard would have preferred being traded to the Lakers or Clippers, but he accepted the deal to Toronto, a city with which he had little familiarity.
“I’m able to experience something new and just playing — playing with my teammates. That’s why I’m out there,” Leonard said. “It’s not fun when you’re not playing this game, just being sidelined for a long time. I worked my whole life to be here and to be one of the players that’s talked about — a great player. I’m just happy to be here able to have a successful season and being on the Raptors and the place that we’re in now.”
Leonard isn’t your typical 27-year-old millennial. He doesn’t have any social media accounts. Negotiations with Jordan Brand fell through because he wasn’t offered a signature shoe because of his low profile. Leonard isn’t much of a public speaker and very rarely draws attention to himself. He is the one millennial who isn’t concerned about his brand.
He just wants to play basketball.
“It’s just who I am,” Leonard said. “So many people spend so much time on [social media], I dedicate my whole life to basketball and being able to go the gym, all those extra hours and time going to play a better game. When I have my downtime, I want to just spend it with my family, my daughter, and give them my full attention.”
Leonard has a personality. He is not as boring as has been portrayed because of his reluctance to speak with the media. He is one of professional sports’ mysterious superstars, and he’s cool with that assessment.
“[People] saying how I don’t like to do things or I just stay locked up in a room all day is the narrative,” he said. “I’m more outgoing but I’m not a very talkative person to entertain a whole room. I talk more than people think I do.”
The Raptors are one of the favorites in the East, just having spanked the Celtics easily on Tuesday in Toronto and cruising toward a No. 1 or 2 seed. They appear completely prepared for a long playoff run, just as Ujiri designed by nabbing Leonard.
“I think we can compete in June,” Leonard said. “We have to get better. There’s a lot of games that we’re up and we lose the lead. But we’re in a good place. A lot of potential for us.”
The Bulls appear content to hang on to impending free agent Robin Lopez, who is playing sparkling ball of late, including a strong game against the Celtics. It was believed Lopez wanted a buyout for weeks but he seems comfortable in the Bulls’ direction and is expected to stay . . . The Celtics will have an interesting predicament this summer. Al Horford has an opt-out clause on the final year of his contract. He can make $30.1 million in the final year of his contract or potentially opt out and sign a team-friendlier extension for multiple years. Horford has not been as productive this season as last, when he was selected to play in the All-Star Game. He is averaging fewer rebounds and assists and is shooting a lower percentage from the 3-point line. The question is would Horford opt into his contract, which is likely his last chance to earn max money? Or would the Celtics agree to an extension for Horford for more years and less money. Horford turns 33 in June and has been a fixture in the middle for the Celtics. He would definitely be an asset in coming years. But the Anthony Davis trade situation further clouds the issue if the Celtics encourage Horford to opt in and then send his contract to the Pelicans as part of a package. A few months ago, it seemed Horford’s status with the Celtics for next season was safe, but a tough year and the Davis situation makes his future as cloudy as Kyrie Irving’s . . . It seems a change of scenery has done wonders for ex-Celtic Avery Bradley, who has flourished with the Grizzlies after he was acquired from the Clippers. In essentially the same minutes per game, Bradley has doubled his scoring average (8.2 to 16.4), shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from the 3-point line.
Friday was the deadline for teams to waive players so they can be eligible for playoff rosters. Meanwhile, players such as Pierre Jackson, Jimmer Fredette, Shabazz Muhammad, and Andrew Nicholson will be available to teams as free agents in the coming weeks from the Chinese Basketball Association. Jackson is leading the league in scoring at nearly 40 points per game.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.