Making the case for Jayson Tatum’s All-Star and All-NBA candidacy

Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics dribble the ball up court during a game against the Sacramento Kings (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics dribble the ball up court during a game against the Sacramento Kings (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

Jayson Tatum is a misunderstood player in the public eye but is undoubtedly deserving of an All-Star nod, largely thanks to pull-up shooting and team defense.

Jayson Tatum is only 19 years old. Wait. No. Scratch that. Rewind. Jayson Tatum is 21 years old and now, he’s one of the NBA’s best players, solidifying himself among the league’s top 30 this season. That is perhaps contentious among some and understandably so. Tatum’s raw production is good — but not great: 21.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.4 steals on a .435/.366/.841 slash line (54.1 percent true shooting, 2.5 points lower than league average). Advocating for his All-Star and All-NBA case requires nuance that goes beyond traditional box score numbers and illuminates Tatum’s star qualities.

Critiquing his shooting split is the simple path to poking holes in his numbers because 21 points on below-average efficiency doesn’t hold much weight these days. It’s easy to look at them and brush aside the output as quantity over quality; he takes a lot of shots, so he makes a lot of shots. But Tatum is truly an elite off-the-bounce 3-point shooter for a 6-foot-8, 21-year-old wing. The latter note is more relevant to his long-term potential but the former fortifies his All-Star resume and distinguishes him from other forwards in the running.

Among 26 players hoisting three-plus pull-up triples per game, Tatum ranks third in efficiency (37.2 percent, 3.9 attempts per game) and the only wing stationed above him is Paul George (40.6 percent, 3.7 attempts), who leads the entire grouping. Tatum grades out better than All-Star wings like Jimmy Butler (20.6 percent, 1.5 attempts) and Kawhi Leonard (33.3 percent, 2.5 attempts) — although, Khris Middleton, who’s at 40.5 percent on 2.0 attempts each night, deserves a mention. Granted, Butler’s and Leonard’s superstardom isn’t built upon that particularly skill but this dichotomy helps contextualize Tatum’s rare company; only George matches his blend of efficiency and volume.

Handing the ball to your star wing with instructions to self-create is a luxury and ensures Kemba Walker does not have to shoulder the burden alone in Boston. Tatum flashes special sequences and his shot-making prowess is further intensified by the fact he ranks in the 94th percentile in 3-point shot difficulty, according to Mike Zavagno’s Shot Quality Metric. Despite that, he’s in the 61st percentile in 3-point value over average because he’s a wildly talented tough shot-maker. These are the buckets stars convert.

Now, I get it. As fun as those clips are and as well as Tatum shakes out in the pull-up department, he’s still sporting a subpar 54.1 percent true shooting percentage. That stems from poor finishing (58 percent at the rim, 28th percentile), an over-reliance on mid-range jumpers (82nd percentile in frequency, 38 percent shooting) and a paltry .215 free-throw rate (20th among 21 players averaging 18 shots per game). It’s difficult to campaign for Tatum solely on the basis of his scoring.

However, in two of the most popular on-ball play types, he fares quite well, ranking in the 77th percentile as a pick-and-roll maestro and 69th percentile in isolation scoring. The manner through which players are deployed as scorers matters significantly in evaluation. Tatum logs much of his work on the ball and while his overall efficiency is underwhelming, there are still few All-Star-caliber reserves in the East who outpace his Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (OPIPM) of plus-1.87.

Among other All-Star contenders in the front-court (Butler, Middleton, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic, Jaylen Brown, Tobias Harris and Brook Lopez, apologies if I missed anyone), only Butler (plus-3.35) and Middleton (plus-2.30) shine brighter than Tatum. So, yeah, his true shooting percentage is uninspiring but his status as a high-level pull-up shooter beyond the arc, pick-and-roll creator and isolation scorer paint him as one of the best offensive wings out East.

It’s imperative we move beyond treating true shooting percentage as a catch-all metric because it’s a statistic largely devoid of context often used to paint too broad a stroke about a player’s offensive/scoring value. There is far more data portraying Tatum as a very good/near-elite offensive wing; it’s just not plainly listed on his Basketball-Reference page. To me, all of that carries more weight than true shooting percentage, which matters in some capacity but much less than everything else previously laid out. This is to say that there are easily discoverable indicators explaining why Tatum’s OPIPM is so good (31st league-wide), despite lacking elite scoring efficiency.

While Tatum is one of the more impactful offensive wings in the NBA, his play would not be deserving of a trip to Chicago solely because of that side of the ball. Rather, Tatum is a true two-way star, which I define as someone who is a genuine difference-maker on both ends. He is one of nine players with steal and block rates of at least two percent (min. 25 minutes per game) and ranks sixth among perimeter players (guards and wings, basically, or non-interior defenders) in Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (DPIPM) at plus-2.18.

Where I think the disconnect arises in analyzing Tatum’s defense is the means by which he produces turnovers. His 1.4 steals per game and 2.0 percent steal rate are good, though both are dwarfed by the NBA leaders in those categories (Ben Simmons at 2.2, Kris Dunn at 3.8).

Tatum also tends to make his takeaways look natural, as if they fall into his lap and should be expected to result, but that is because of the work he does prior to their existence. As such, his defensive play-making doesn’t look all that spectacular if you don’t track Tatum throughout the play’s entirety. A careful examination of his defensive decisions, best absorbed through a meticulous re-watch, reveal why a given possession occurred the way it did.

He is not always flying in from the weak-side or gambling at the expense of a schematic foundation, styles that tend to captivate the viewer in a way Tatum’s artistry does not. Instead, he is a master of positioning and arguably the NBA’s foremost practitioner of stunting on drives, possessing the rare ability to deter downhill attacks before recovering to his assignment for a steal.

While he excels on stunts, it is a general knack for combating a variety of actions — and simultaneously eliminating the secondary option stemming from his deterrence — that make him a special off-ball defender. He takes away the offense’s primary intentions, forces it to bend to his will and anticipates the next step; flipping the script and being proactive, rocking the offense into counter-punch scenarios rather than being the aggressor, are the pillars of an All-Defensive-caliber defender. His reaction time and supremely functional length pop in these sequences as he can dictate how teams must operate, a noteworthy achievement from the defensive side of things, particularly for a non-rim protector.

Tatum’s hyper-aware nature also manifests in the open floor, where he’s a thorn in the side of teams aiming to initiate early clock offense. His head is on a constant swivel as he tracks his man streaking down the sidelines and keeps a watchful eye on the ball-handler, primed to pounce on any daring pass they attempt. Look at the swiftness with which he transitions from retreating back to darting into passing lanes, once again utilizing elite reaction speed and functional length for a perimeter defender.

An understanding of his surroundings bears out in half-court contexts as well. Tatum often executes pre-rotations off the ball, demonstrating his distinct basketball IQ by anticipating the route of passes and placing himself in optimal spots for interceptions. As a help-side defender, he is among the league’s best at spacing himself between a pair of shooters to guarantee neither are a completely available passing outlet.

To recognize these two talents, pay attention to how Tatum follows the ball-handler and subsequently rotates based off their movements in the first two clips below. In the latter two clips, pause the video just before the pass is made and ask yourself if any of the weak-side shooters could cleanly attempt a 3 off the catch (the answer, as I see it, is no each time).

Helping to promote all of these ball-hawking skills is his mobility for a 6-foot-8 forward with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. The mental tools are elite but their utility is amplified by Tatum’s fluidity and size, enabling him to remain disciplined — which is another valuable and rare gene for a gifted off-ball defender — and still post impressive steal numbers. At times, he acts as a shut-down cornerback, turning away potential drives or offensive actions because he’s such a multifaceted off-ball defender. He’s elite in stunt-and-recover situations, precisely balances weak-side orientation in pick-and-rolls and has outlier length/reaction speed for a perimeter defender. Often, it’s simply easier for teams to avoid involving him altogether.

If he were more ambitious, a la Matisse Thybulle, he’d be vying for the NBA crown in steals per game each year. But he is pragmatic in his approach and recognizes the gravity of staying at home, allowing his presence to disrupt the opposition while not compromising Boston’s defensive structure (Thybulle is a stellar defend in his own right, especially for a rookie, and Philadelphia’s defensive personnel means he can roam more than Tatum). This marriage of play-making and discretion conveys why Tatum is the bedrock of the Celtics’ defense and ranks so favorably in DPIPM.

While not the same level of on-ball defender as he is away from the action — underwhelming positional strength primarily hinders him —  his length is still plenty disruptive and permits him to oscillate across assignments, relying on that wingspan for rear-view contests against guards in ball-screens and dexterity to hang with bigs inside

Circling back to the grander point at hand, Tatum’s significant contributions on both ends of the floor strengthen his case as a sure-fire All-Star and a potential suitor for All-NBA later this year. If Anthony Davis is eligible as a forward, Tatum would be seventh on my six-man ballot; if Davis is a center, Tatum would join the quintet of Giannis, LeBron, Kawhi, Butler and Middleton for the final spot.

He is a proficient on-ball creator who hits pull-up 3s at a high clip, can effectively generate buckets in pick-and-rolls and isolation, and owns a legitimate argument for an All-Defensive berth — thanks to atypical instincts, intelligence and functional length. Capturing the impact of all these individual skills is PIPM, where Tatum ranks 10th in the NBA (if PIPM is not your cup of tea, he’s also fifth in Real Plus-Minus and third in Real Adjusted Plus-Minus).

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Despite these metrics, I do not consider Tatum a top-10 player. But I am a deeply analytical person and find these catch-all data points to be quite worthwhile. I cannot catalog or quantify everything a player does on the basketball court; advanced metrics serve as complementary analysis and cover my perceived blind spots.

In conjunction with those statistics and all the ways I see Tatum affect the game, I deem him a no-doubt All-Star and fringe All-NBA wing. The raw scoring efficiency is not pretty but this is a damn good basketball player whose value cannot be boiled down to a singular number that fails to properly represent his holistic on-court influence. And that’s why in-depth and nuanced digging reveals this 21-year-old to be a genuine NBA star.