Jayson Tatum: Trial by Fire

The young Jayson Tatum has started his first three NBA games, played more than 30 minutes in each, and looked great while doing it. Call it a small sample size, or call one of the best rookie debuts for the Celtics in about 40 years. Your choice.

With the indefinite loss of Gordon Hayward, the Boston Celtics will look to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, (AKA Jaywatch) 19 and 20 years old respectively, to make up for the loss on both ends of the floor. While Brown has stepped up tremendously, Tatum has already stolen the hearts of fans as he makes an early impression on the Celtics record books.

Tatum’s 14 points and 10 rebounds in Cleveland made him the first Celtic since Larry Bird to post a double-double in his NBA debut. It’s good company, although not the most exclusive. Here are some other debuts from high draft picks over the years:

Name Draft position Year Debut numbers
Paul Pierce 10 1999 19 pts/9 reb/5 ast
Antoine Walker 6 1996 12 pts/ 3 rebs
Joe Johnson 10 2001 10 pts/7 reb/4 ast
Chauncey Billups 3 1997 15 pts/2 reb/4 ast
Marcus Smart 6 2014 10 pts/2 reb/2 ast/ 4 stl
Jaylen Brown 3 2016 9 pts/2 reb/ 1 ast/ 2 blk

(Kevin McHale also had 10 in his debut, but there are no other stats listed for him on basketball-reference.)

The other rookies to debut with double-doubles this season are Ben Simmons (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Dennis Smith Jr. (16 points, 10 assists). Tatum’s 36 minutes played were the most of any rookie in their first game this season.

Here’s a weird thought: Jayson Tatum has played the second most minutes in the NBA as of October 21st. He’s played 106 minutes in his first three games, trailing only Kyrie Irving’s 114. Of course, the Celtics are the only team to play three games in the season’s first four nights, but, a 19-year-old playing the second most minutes? That’s…magical.

Tatum’s 12 points per game come as a pleasant surprise, even with so many minutes opened up for him, although it’s worth noting that his free throw shooting has been slightly more impactful than his hesitant offense in the half court. His perfect nine-of-nine from the line in Philly was vital as the Celtics only shot 22 of 32 from the line, but his .902 points per possession have him in the bottom half of the league, per Synergy. His 40% shooting from the field is fine, but one-of-five from three is holding his numbers down a bit, but those shots will fall eventually. 

And the defense?

It’s pretty representative of the team’s defense as a whole, actually. The cumulative lankiness of the Celtics has earned them a 99.9 defensive rating through three games, putting them in the top ten for the time being. Tatum, in particular, is so long that he’s been taking down nine rebounds per game, addressing perhaps the most pressing need of last season. It seems that the Celtics are still perceived as too thin, which may be true with or without injuries, but they have yet to be thoroughly outmatched on the boards in three games.

What more could you want from the rookie? I can think of one thing:

Unselfishness is potent in creating strong team chemistry, but it’s also common for Brad Stevens’ disciples to be too unselfish. To be fair, it’s tough to be the correct amount of selfish. Making the extra pass is nice - making the extra-extra-extra pass is usually too many passes. When you’ve got the smoothest jump shot of anyone not named Kyrie Irving, even the single extra pass can be incorrect. If it’s a pass to a slashing Rozier, by all means, get it to him, but if the next pass is to Al Horford at the top of the key, I’d rather Tatum just take the shot himself. Horford can contribute in so many ways that he doesn’t need to score for the Celtics to win. The same can’t be said for more other players unless it’s Marcus Smart.

The Celtics are going to get plenty of production out of Horford and Irving no matter what, so it's crucial that they can get other shooters involved to climb back to a winning record. At the same time, players like Tatum need to take it upon themselves to take the shots they're expected to take. The Brad Stevens system gives just about everyone the greenest of green lights, so expect even more three-pointers from the Celtics wings from here on out. 

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