Jayson Tatum's Confounding Shot Selection

The Boston Celtics have been consistently inconsistent on both ends of the floor. Jayson Tatum's habits help paint the greater picture as to why their offense is struggling.

The Boston Celtics' struggles on the road stem from self-inflicted wounds. Watching them lose to Chicago on February 26th was a death by a thousand wet noodles thrown from one's own hand into the face. Many of the Celtics' role players have had some head-scratching inconsistencies on display throughout the season, but none is more apparent to me than Jayson Tatum.

(For those of you screaming "TERRY ROZIER" at your screen right now, I hear you. We'll get to that.)

As a prospect, Tatum was loosely compared to Paul Pierce for his well-rounded offensive potential. Per Synergy, Tatum is in the top 60% of the league in points per possession on most offensive play types. (He's in the bottom fourth in isolation. We'll get to that.) This includes scoring in transition, on spot ups, and in the pick-and-roll as the ball handler. He's also been pretty good on post-ups as well as shooting off of screens and handoffs. There's no bad shot for him to take, in theory. In practice, though, he throws up several in every game.

While the influence of analytics whittles down most of the league's scoring to just threes and dunks, its players have been chastised for gravitating towards mid-range looks. While I think it's unwise to actively seek out mid-range shots in lieu of more efficient shots, a player should still take them if it feels natural for him. Naturally, I'm cool with the idea of Tatum continuing to take mid-range shots as he sees fit -- except for the really terrible ones. Per Cleaning the Glass, 38% of Tatum's field goal attempts are from mid-range, putting him in the 87th percentile among all forwards. It's pretty safe to say he can allocate some of those attempts elsewhere.

Shooting & Team Results

As previously mentioned, Tatum is in the bottom 25% of isolation scorers. Those who have watched Tatum since the start of his rookie season know that he's at least an above-average shooter -- and the numbers reflect that. So what gives?

Actually, let's back up a step. Why should you care about isolation scoring if the rest of his game is good enough to make up for it?

Many of the Celtics' losses have come by less than 10 points. Since the start of the new year, the Celtics have lost to the Magic (by two), the Nets (by seven), the Warriors (by four), the Lakers (by one), and the Bucks (by one). If you expand our scope a little, we can include a ten-point loss to the Bulls, an eleven-point loss to the Clippers, and a sixteen-point loss to Miami. And just like that, we've covered all but one loss of 2019 leading up to the last week of February. (That one other loss: getting blown out in Toronto.)

The loss to Chicago was also Boston's 11th loss of the season where they had at least an 80% chance of winning at some point in the game (credit to kellyolynykschin on reddit). It's a pretty flawed stat, especially if you use win probabilities from early in the games (only really applicable to the Chicago game), but it still sums up the team's struggles pretty well. Surrendering leads to bad teams has burrowed the Celtics in the standings all season, putting their chances to play at least one playoff series with home-court advantage in jeopardy.

Now, how does this all relate to Tatum? While some blame the losses on a lack of effort (which is understandable) or inconsistent player rotations (also understandable), I tend to focus on shot selection.

That's 22% from the right elbow for Tatum. Twenty-two.

So here's what we know...

Jayson Tatum:

  1. Is a well-rounded scorer in all play types this season outside of isolation;
  2. Favors mid-range shooting far more than the average player at his position; and
  3. Struggles greatly on a particular mid-range shot that he likes to take.

I won't blow this up as something that's single-handedly tanking the Celtics offense. I'm not saying it's ruining Tatum's game, nor would I imply that his skill set has been corrupted at all. It's one detail, and it takes a few details to paint the full story. So here's another thing I take issue with: adding increased difficulty to field goal attempts.

Tatum and many of his teammates have a tendency to get creative on offense before the defense can even blink. In this clip, he pump fakes so quickly that Leonard has time to spin around and challenge the three-point shot, even after neglecting to close out aggressively on the initial fake. Three seconds into the clip Tatum has the ball at chest level in the corner while Leonard's feet are just outside the painted area. As Leonard closes the gap, Tatum quickly fakes, steps to the side, and begins his shooting motion. At the five second mark, you can see that Leonard has closed in on Tatum, and you can see his hand contesting Tatum's shot as closely as possible without fouling.

Here's one more shot from the aforementioned right elbow:

Ben Simmons deserves some credit for his defense, but Tatum has no business taking this shot. JJ Redick, whom the Celtics frequently exploit, is on the floor covering one of Boston's most consistently active and aggressive players, Marcus Smart. Jonathon Simmons, one of the 76ers' newest acquisitions, is guarding Jaylen Brown. Boban Marjanovic, who has the agility of a goose on stilts, is covering Daniel Theis in the paint. Not only is Tatum forcing a difficult shot over the best defender Philadelphia has on the court, but he fails to notice how far Brown's defender slides away from him to bother the shot.

As Tatum has taken on a larger role with the Celtics this season and therefore increased the volume of his scoring attempts, his efficiency has suffered. This is a pretty normal pattern, but that doesn't mean it can't be fixed. Marcus Smart, for example, didn't become a skilled three-pointer shooter overnight. To be honest, he didn't improve that much at all. Instead, he eliminated a lot of the ill-advised shots from his game while continuing to take the open looks as they came to him. In that same vein, Tatum can succeed as an isolation player, without wasting possessions, by cleaning up his shot selection. While Tatum isn't the only Celtic with holes in his game, he still plays the most minutes and takes the second most shots. If he's forcing himself to take multiple bad shots per game as the second most featured player in their offense, then we have problems. It would almost be hypocritical to expect players with smaller roles to fix their games while more prominent players continue to make unforced errors. Now please stop yelling at me about Rozier. The Celtics can be successful is Rozier never finds his rhythm again. They won't be contenders if their starters can't find any consistency.

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