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Why Are the NBA’s Best Players Getting Better Younger? YouTube

Jayson Tatum is unlike any of the other precocious 20-year-olds near Boston in almost every way. He already has a job. And he’s phenomenally good at it. He’s the leading scorer on a Celtics team only two wins away from the NBA Finals, and to watch him these days is to wonder how Tatum is this good this young.

But one of the reasons he’s this good is because he’s this young. Tatum is young enough that he grew up with YouTube. There was never a time in his life that he couldn’t watch any clip of any NBA player any time he wanted.

“That’s how young I am,” Tatum said.

He was 7 when YouTube was invented, and it wasn’t long until he was searching for Kobe Bryant videos. “I’ve been watching Kobe ever since I can remember,” he said. But what made him the player he is today is not that Tatum simply watched Kobe. It was what he watched. And how he watched it. He studied Kobe.

“Not just watching the dunks, but actually trying to learn,” he said. “I think I learned that at a very young age.”

Tatum is the youngest player still in the NBA playoffs, and he’s already played more postseason minutes than anyone his age ever had. He’s also the most reliable playmaker on a Celtics team with an unlikely 2-0 lead on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. He does things that rookies should not be able to do.

Watch, for example, as Tatum attempts this fadeaway.

It’s a tricky move that Tatum has been refining since high school.

And he took it from none other than Kobe Bryant. He spent hours taking note of the granular details imperceptible to the untrained eye that allowed Bryant to get this shot off.

But it’s not only Tatum who plays beyond his years. This is happening across the entire league. The best NBA players are getting better younger.

They were born with advantages that weren’t available to older players and had access to more information than anyone before them in the history of basketball.

Justin Tatum, a high-school basketball coach, could tell his son to watch clips with three words: “YouTube this guy.” Which sounds totally normal until you remember it wasn’t possible until very recently. NBA players who grew up watching Michael Jordan couldn’t even watch clips of Michael Jordan. LeBron James didn’t have YouTube. He’s been in the league for longer than YouTube has been a company.

But today’s young players have spent their entire lives watching basketball on demand. The extraordinary amount of knowledge at their disposal is one of the reasons they’re entering the league with polished skills and making their influence felt immediately.

YouTube allowed Kristaps Porzingis to admire Kevin Durant all the way from Latvia, Joel Embiid to emulate Hakeem Olajuwon and Tatum to geek out about Bryant.

“I wanted to be just like Kobe,” Tatum said. He tried to be like Kobe by watching Kobe on YouTube. “Any chance that I could,” he said.

When Tatum was 13 years old, which was not long ago, he was a promising enough player to have a trainer, Drew Hanlen, who put him through a series of unusual workouts in which they didn’t shoot, dribble or do anything resembling basketball. They analyzed the intricacies of Bryant’s footwork.

Tatum watched and rewatched with Hanlen and his assistant Sam Limon, who made Bryant mixtapes on YouTube and was such a Kobe fan that “Kobe fan” was in his email address, until he was deconstructing the subtleties of something as specific as Bryant’s shot fakes. “The skills within the skill itself,” Hanlen said. “Think about that. Thirteen years old, and he was focusing on the nuances of the jab step.”

But there were only so many Bryant videos that Tatum could watch and re-watch on his phone, Hanlen’s laptop and his mother Brandy Cole’s computer. Over time he began incorporating skills he swiped from Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce.

He incorporated those elements to his own game during 6 a.m. training sessions every morning before school. If his coaches were late, they found Tatum there shooting by himself. On the days when Hanlen was on the road, he monitored Tatum’s progress through FaceTime.

In the summer of 2013, when Tatum was still in that high-school gym, Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made a deal with the desperate Brooklyn Nets for their draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 and maybe the most valuable piece of all: the right to swap picks in 2017.

Four years later, the Celtics won the NBA draft lottery and could have taken anyone with the No. 1 pick. Instead they traded it for the No. 3 pick and what could be another top pick next year. Their rationale at the time: “We think there’s a really good chance the player we’ll take at 3 is the same player we would have taken at 1,” Ainge said.

That player was Tatum. It turned out to be a brilliant decision.

His development into a player with star potential has enormous implications for the future of the NBA. These playoffs have shown there may be no team with a brighter outlook than the Celtics, who could win the East this year and then get a lot better next year when Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward return from injuries, but they wouldn’t be here without the rapid maturation of 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and the 20-year-old Tatum.

They have entrusted Tatum with more responsibility during the playoffs, and he’s responded by doing stuff like this.

Ainge marvels at how Tatum’s mind works. There’s a reason he plays as if he’s seen an incredible amount of basketball: because he actually has. Ainge can tell. It’s not uncommon for Celtics coach Brad Stevens to propose hypothetical situations in practice and gauge Tatum’s response. If your defender is on this side, Stevens might say, how would you get open on the other side?

“It’s fascinating to me that he’s got an answer,” Ainge said. “He knows how he would do it. And it would probably work.”

Tatum was inundating himself with data right after his warm-up before Game 2 on Tuesday night. He took a seat on the bench, and for the next five minutes, his eyes didn’t leave Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry’s laptop screen.

But he doesn’t need a coach’s encouragement. If he’s curious about something, he still grabs his phone sometimes and watches the NBA he always has.

“I go on YouTube,” Tatum said.

More on the Boston Celtics

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

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