It’s nights like these where Celtics fans have to be grateful Danny Ainge didn’t offer Jayson Tatum up in any short-sighted trade while he was enduring an uneven second season. Eventually, Tatum was going to get it. Eventually, he was going to play more consistently and maximize his talents.
He remains a work in progress, a gifted swingman developing into an All-Star. Maybe he gets selected in a few weeks or maybe next year, but it’s a given. His career-high 41 points in just 30 minutes, 23 seconds in Saturday night’s 140-105 rout of the Pelicans, was a masterful performance that helped the Celtics snap their three-game losing streak.
It was a work of art in efficiency and execution.
He made 16 of 22 shots, including 6 of 9 3-pointers, without a turnoverand a plus-30 in the 35-point win. It was a career-high in points after a rough recent stretch, a sparkling comeback and a reminder of his immense potential.
So there should be no complaints from the home faithful when Tatum signs that five-year, $170 million maximum deal this summer when he’s eligible for a contract extension. He is the type of cornerstone piece the Celtics were seeking to replace Paul Pierce.
And now he has smoothly paired with Jaylen Brown, who received his extension in October, to cement the Celtics’ promising future.
There are times when Tatum complains too often to officials or settles for mid-range jump shots after passing up open threes. But this season he has improved in both categories. He has embraced his 3-point shooting ability and become craftier in driving to the basket.
In the third period, he simply took over, scoring 19 points on 11 shots with an array of long-range jumpers and picturesque drives to the basket. He closed in on the 40-point mark and reached it with an easy finger roll with 1:04 left. It was another milestone for the former third overall pick, another sign that he’s emerging as a superstar.
But he knows he needs to become more consistent to become the player he aspires.
“Obviously it feels good, for sure, but I never get too high or too low when I play well or when I don’t,” he said. “For me, I feel like I have a long way to go. The guys I look up to, they have nights like this more often than not, so obviously it feels good, but I’m just going to try to do it more often and be consistent, continue to get better.”
The process of reaching elite status can sometimes have its warts. The key is producing these types of performances – not career nights in points, but efficient, dominant games – more often. The great ones often do that.
“I just think he’s going to be ever-improving,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He had a couple of really good finishes with both hands early in the game. But he also, I thought, had the right mindset attack. It helps when you start off these 40-point games with a couple of layups, which he got. Couple off his effort, couple off big ceiling for him, and then he got a couple steals and now the basket feels a little bit bigger, and some of those threes go down.
“But the finishing is going to be really important. And we’ve talked about — we’ve talked a lot about how best to do that, but I think he’s had a great year. But I think he can get better.”
Tatum needs to be more aggressive, not more selfish. He needs to attack when he finds his spots and when defenses are doubling or cutting off the paint, he needs to find open teammates. As polished as Tatum was offensively when he was drafted three years ago, he needed work, he needed to learn the ability to use his skills to be a scorer and playmaker.
That’s the process we are witnessing right now and there are going to be some pretty nights and some not so much.
But the Celtics have to be ecstatic with how Tatum has developed in his third season. He has turned into a plus defender. He has listened to the coaching staff and worked on his weaknesses. He has bonded well with Brown and his teammates.
He’s also been able to adjust to the departures of Kyrie Irving (who mentored him since Duke) and Marcus Morris (who proved to be a positive influence) and has become a quiet leader of his own.
So nights like these shouldn’t be so surprising. What’s more, they should be expected because Tatum has the potential to be an all-time great Celtic. He offered a hint of that potential Saturday.
The next step is to make these sparkling performances a normal occurrence.