He is so young that if there were two of him, the combined age would still be younger than his coach — 41-year-old Brad Stevens — who’s one of the younger coaches in the NBA.
Jayson Tatum is 20 and that sounds as absurd as this — Jayson Tatum scored 20 points in a Game 7 win Saturday.
But it’s all true. The St. Louis product who can’t drink St. Louis products (Fitz’s and Vess notwithstanding) took a symbolic step that most NBA lottery picks don’t take as rookies. The 6-foot-8 Celtic spearheaded a Game 7 victory with his 20 points, six rebounds and five assists. His plus-minus rating Saturday against the Bucks was plus-24 — best of all players, and it wasn’t even particularly close.
“Game 7 shows Jayson is going to be a superstar in the NBA,” said Chaminade coach Frank Bennett, who won the 2016 state title with Tatum. “He has the ability to score at all three levels — and he is a matchup problem for the opposition. He has proven to be a solid defender as well. But what I think is going to separate him is his basketball IQ. Jayson will consistently make the correct basketball play, which helps his team win. Over the course of time, these attributes, combined with his unparalleled work ethic, will allow him to be a great player in the league.”
It’s not supposed to happen this fast. LeBron James didn’t even make the playoffs his first season. The whole point of the NBA draft is for the worst teams to draft the best young players — and then, seemingly ceremoniously, the rejuvenated franchise and the budding star grow together over the course of a couple of years. On a rare occasion, one of the best teams will get to draft one of the best young players, thanks to a previous trade for that pick. Still, the rookie is often a role player.
But Tatum’s success comes from a confluence of confidence and coincidence.
The Celtics’ All-Star from last season got hurt.
The Celtics’ other All-Star from last season got hurt, too.
And Tatum, the No. 3 overall pick, played all season with exuberance and intelligence. He entered the postseason as a key starter for the second-seeded Celtics.
Of course, Tatum wasn’t even the best Chaminade grad in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Bradley Beal’s season sent him to his first All-Star Game. And the Wizards’ shooting wizard now has a 22.5 career scoring average in the postseason. Check this out, from basketballreference.com: Beal’s 22.5 ranks 14th among players before they turn 25 (with a minimum of 30 playoff games played). Fourteenth sounds good, sure, but then consider the talent in front of him — all 13 players were at least five-time All-Stars.
But Beal, 24, couldn’t get out of the first round this season. Even with John Wall.
Tatum is still going, thanks to his stupendous Game 7.
The Celtics truly are a fascinating compilation. There’s center Al Horford, who steps off the bus with a double-double. There’s Terry Rozier III, who fittingly has “3” in his name. There’s Marcus Smart, who is basketball’s equivalent to a “scrappy” baseball player (and as those who watched Tatum games in the regular season know, is referred to by the Boston broadcaster as “Maaaah-kus Smaaaa-ht”).
And there’s Jaylen Brown, the former Cuonzo Martin player at Cal, earmarked as the Celtics’ future alongside Jayson … but who is also the present. Alas, Brown suffered a hamstring injury in Game 7 and is doubtful for Monday’s Game 1 against Philadelphia, the Celtics’ second-round opponent.
Philadelphia versus Boston. The Super Bowl cities go after it again. There’s not an NBA series more intriguing, either. Tatum against fellow rookie Ben Simmons, the presumed winner of the rookie of the year hardware. The ballhandling skills of these slim, tall men are astounding. Simmons, 6-feet-10, averaging nearly nine assists a night. Tatum casually throwing bull’s-eye alley-oops to Big Al. And the way both men smoothly maneuver through traffic, controlling their dribbles, until unleashing leaps or “Euro-steps” like a video game character? It’s bizarre and beautiful basketball — modern basketball. And we haven’t even started talking about Philly’s Joel Embiid yet. Can this series start right this second?
But once more, let’s take a moment to appreciate Tatum in Game 7.
Like his high school coach said, he made the correct basketball play so often. It really is just so much fun to watch. At one point in the game, the Bucks stuck an old vet on Tatum.
Back in the spring of 1998, Arizona had a guard named Jason Terry, while St. Louis University had an academically ineligible forward named Justin Tatum. On March 3, Tatum had a son.
And this past Saturday, Terry played against Tatum’s son in an NBA playoff game.
There was Jason, 40, desperately defending Jayson, 20.
While this is also a testament to Terry, still hanging on, it’s really to show the absurdity of the reality — in the NBA playoffs, Jayson Tatum is schooling his father’s contemporaries. Schooling his own contemporaries. Schooling and learning, all at the same time.