The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
Pressure doesn’t always result in diamonds. The earth’s layers are full of dead things; stone fossils and dust particles crushed beyond recognition. On the other hand, not ever being asked to do anything can also be a death sentence or, in the least, a glass ceiling. The expectations resting on Jayson Tatum’s back, however, should feel light as a feather, and with the certainty of another postseason before him, stagnation for the 20-year-old shouldn’t be too much of a concern either. He promises to be a better player a year from now; such is the pattern of his development.
In his one season at Duke University, Tatum averaged 16.1 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game and was second among ACC freshmen in both categories. The team didn’t achieve quite what some past teams at Duke had. While the team did manage to win the ACC Tournament, it finished fifth in the conference regular season and fell short of a Final Four appearance. And yet Tatum’s potential was still on full display. He unleashed a smoke monster dunk against the University of North Carolina and stitched together a 28-point-performance against a stingy University of Virginia squad. Clearly the kid possessed special powers and was worth drafting early in the lottery. As long as he avoids playing backgammon with bald dudes named Locke, he should develop in plenty of time.
In his one season as a Celtic, Tatum started eighty games, averaging 13.9 points and 5.0 rebounds, but it was his performances in the postseason, where he not only upped his scoring average to 18.5 a game, that proved he had the mettle and moxie to match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, and, to an extent, even LeBron James. That Tatum was able to keep pace with these other stars isn’t necessarily surprising, but the speed at which he was able to do so is.
The young man from St. Louis is ahead of schedule. The Boston Celtics never expected to lean on his coat hanger frame so heavily during the 2017-18 NBA season. After all, in the offseason, they had acquired both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. Then Hayward and Irving were both suddenly missing, and the lives of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier were thrust into the spotlight. And yet they took to it like moths — darting and weaving as head coach Brad Stevens directed traffic from the sidelines. Imagine building an archway to the West before Lewis and Clark ever set foot for the Pacific and that’s what Tatum’s rookie year would have been if he and his too young teammates had landed either knockout blow in Game 6 or 7 of their series against LeBron and his Cleveland Cavaliers. They didn’t deliver the miracle ending, and the future, as it so often does, had to wait. Still, the proximity of the young Celtic core to greatness was an undeniable head rush that lived to deny round earth mechanics.
When Boston avoided drafting Markelle Fultz by trading the number one pick to Philadelphia, they still ended up selecting a 19-year-old with a year of college experience. Call it intuition. Call it Danny Ainge. They appear to have made the right choice. A shoulder injury and dodgy mechanics transformed Fultz’s rookie season into a magic prop, as his basketball relevancy vanished and materialized from night to night and at various levels of success. Meanwhile, Tatum steadily met and then finally surpassed the expectations for his rookie season. Still, whatever Jayson Tatum will be doesn’t have to be this season.
While the second year forward is already conjuring up Hall of Fame predictions from the likes of Grant Hill, Tatum’s luxury status is as a building block for the future. His name definitely crackles with all the snap and allure of a franchise player’s, but he may be only the fifth-most important player on this year’s Celtics. A healthy Irving and a healthy Hayward promise to touch the ball more. Jaylen Brown is likely a better all-around player at this juncture, and Al Horford is still steadfast and pivotal to the team’s success. Then again, on some nights, Tatum promises to not only be Boston’s best player, but the best player in any uniform anywhere, flat earth or round. He is playing with great expectations, but he is also surrounded by a sea of benefactors.
His situation is a far cry from the barren wastelands that drafted Giannis and LeBron. He is not Kevin Durant playing out a rainy season in the great Northwest, nor is he a Michael Jordan weighed down by golden necklaces and the Bad Boy Pistons. He doesn’t have to be a Grant Hill triple double for his team to bob its head at .500. His situation isn’t even that of a young Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce. If his teammates remain healthy, then his basketball habitat will make his contributions difficult to decipher and value in regards to the careers his will one day be measured against. His numbers aren’t likely to sky rocket this year or the next, but they also shouldn’t crater the world around him. He is, for now, free to make mistakes, to be 20 years of age and steadily improving. He also isn’t the first young player to develop in such an ecosystem.
In 1982, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted James Worthy to exist in the spaces between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. In 2011, San Antonio added Kawhi Leonard to the likes of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. And, even more recently, Durant decided splitting the burden as many ways as possible was a more alluring proposition than splitting it fifty-fifty with Russell Westbrook. In other words, Millennial hive mind has overtaken the NBA, and Atlas is dead. And yet Tatum is clearly drawn to the flames that burn with the most intensity.
The most interesting aspect of his young career will be watching him navigate between the role Brad Stevens lays before him and the player Tatum most wants to be — the last true Galactus.
Everyone knows Tatum is a devout disciple to Kobe Bryant. Almost every answer Tatum gives to every question reads as an addendum: Well, actually — adjusts his glasses — , Kobe Bryant taught me how to do that. Because Tatum is a Celtic and Kobe a career long Laker, any discussion about the two can easily unravel into the ephemeral purple and green mystique. In an interview with Bill Simmons this summer, the two ended up discussing more than a rivalry’s abstractions and Wakanda Black Panther suits. When asked what basketball knowledge the former Laker has handed down to him, Tatum responded:
"“When we were working out, his thing was just trying to break the game down and make it as simple as possible. He said the year he averaged 35, all he worked on in the summertime was pivot foot, trying to play off both pivots.”"
The secrets to being a great basketball player sometimes aren’t so secret. Sometimes the skills are the same fundamentals taught in elementary school gyms to young students of the game the first time they ever encounter the glazed hardwood. While not dribbling the orange ball, one foot must always be planted, which isn’t as magical and awe-inspiring as being led to a holy sanctum underneath a mountain, where feasting on hallucinogenic lotus blossoms transports the mind and spirit into the realms of the dead for a holy revelation. No, says Kobe Bryant, if you want to be great, wax on, wax off, and master the pivot with both legs.
Jayson Tatum’s second year may not catch anyone off guard, and he may wind up playing a more supplemental role than he did in last year’s playoffs. But, if he can master the pivot, he should be ready to make his move whenever the time is right. Anyone who remembers Kobe’s entire career knows he forced such moments early and often — airballed them into shape even. How patient Tatum can be inside the bowels of his green and white cocoon is an object of the utmost curiosity.