Jayson Tatum’s skills coach, Drew Hanlen, bristles when he hears some of the criticism of his pupil. Yes, Tatum’s 3-point percentage dipped during his second pro season, but that was to be expected of a player who shot a blistering 43.4 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie.
Last season, Tatum made 37.3 percent of his 3-pointers, the 50th-best mark in the NBA, and better than stars such as James Harden, Jamal Murray, Damian Lillard, and Devin Booker.
Was there room for improvement? Of course. Was there reason to panic? Of course not.
“I mean, he shot 40 percent over his first two years in the NBA,” Hanlen said in a telephone interview. “I think people overcriticize him. If he would have shot 37 percent his rookie season, everyone would have freaked out, and now he shot 37 and people look at is as a drop-off. But I think there was just some frustration with him not being in the role he thought he would be in after the previous season.”
Last season there was frustration pretty much everywhere, as the Celtics stumbled before being punted out of the playoffs in the second round by the Bucks, falling well short of the NBA Finals appearance so many expected of them.
The roster has undergone a massive makeover since then. Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Aron Baynes are gone, and even with the additions of players such as Kemba Walker and Enes Kanter, there is no question that Boston will be counting on Tatum to become a true star.
So this summer Tatum and Hanlen have been working to do that. Despite the mild dip in 3-point shooting, Hanlen is not tinkering with Tatum’s form. Instead, the two are focused on a few primary goals. They want him to get to the free throw line more, they want him to take fewer midrange shots, and they want him to take more 3-pointers, even in frenetic settings.
“The offense is going to put him in situations and he’s going to have to make the right play,” Hanlen said. “I think last year the biggest thing was he settled too much. When he felt contact he would sidestep, step away, and sort of fade away, which he’s capable of making but also are not high-percentage shots, and they don’t cause fouls. It’s just about being a little bit smarter on the way he attacks.”
Last season, according to NBA.com, Tatum attempted 276 midrange shots and made just 36.6 percent of them. He took 311 3-pointers — which are considerably more valuable — and made 37.3 percent of them. Tatum took 4.6 3-pointers per game, and Hanlen believes that number should be closer to 8.
There were times Tatum was noticeably less comfortable beyond the arc, opting to dribble inside into a more challenging, midrange offering. Hanlen said that was partly because when Tatum was at full speed, or moving near the 3-point line at awkward angles, he was not always able to instantly re-center for sidestep, step-back or off-the-dribble 3-pointers. So they are working on all of those things now.
“We’ve been doing a lot where he’s just not allowed to shoot midrange shots,” Hanlen said. “So it forces him to do it, and he’s starting to kind of realize when he settles for the jump shot and when he should get downhill. He’s seen it on film and now we’re forcing him to do it by taking away the midrange, and then it’s just about making the right decision. Sometimes the midrange is the best shot, sometimes the three is the best shot, and sometimes the rim. It’s about putting it all together.”
Last season, the Celtics ranked 29th in the NBA in free throw attempts per game. Tatum’s size, ballhandling skills, and threat as an outside shooter should allow him to draw plenty of fouls. But last season he took just 4.4 free throws per 100 possessions, dropping from 5.2 his rookie season. (Harden, for reference, averaged 14.7.)
“Driving and getting downhill through contact and being able to finish around the rim is our No. 1 focus,” Hanlen said. “And then consistency when he’s shooting off the dribble or off a full-speed move from the 3-point line. Those are our two things, just getting to the rim and drawing fouls, and finishing when you do get to the rim, and then consistency with threes. We just want him to be more efficient, and we think he will be. He’s as locked in as I’ve ever seen him. He’s very, very locked in.”
Hanlen has also been working with Celtics forward Semi Ojeleye and summer league standout Tacko Fall.
Hanlen said that Ojeleye, who made 31.8 percent of his 3-pointers over his first two seasons with the Celtics, has battled some wrist flexibility issues. But he said the problem has been helped greatly by physical therapy this summer.
They have made two minor tweaks to Ojeleye’s shooting form, and they are focused on adding more arc to his shot.
“Now, we’re just getting a ton of reps up so he gets comfortable,” Hanlen said. “He’s shooting well so far in five on five. Now it’s just about making sure he has the confidence to knock them down this season.”
The 7-foot-7-inch Fall, meanwhile, has been working with Hanlen mostly on hook shots, balance, screen-setting, and free throws. Fall made just 43.2 percent of his free throws at Central Florida. Hanlen said they are in “phase one” of his free throw adjustment, which includes briefly pausing before releasing the ball.
This weekend, Fall is returning home to Senegal to take part in the NBA’s “Basketball Without Borders” program there. Hanlen and his most famous client, 76ers center Joel Embiid, will be there, and Hanlen is eager to see Fall work against perhaps the game’s top center.
“I’ll throw him up against Joel a little bit and he’ll get to work out some with Joel,” Hanlen said, “which will be a really good experience for him.”