Jayson Tatum used to look a little different. Early in last season’s playoffs, Albert praised the Celtics rookie’s knack for catching the ball on the move while defenses were still in flux, making his knifing drives all the deadlier. At 19, with his team’s two stars broken on the sidelines, he was already acting crisply and decisively—not getting stuck in his head or heavy on his feet.
Then, over the summer, this impressionable youth hung out a lot with Kobe Bryant and contracted Kobe Brain, which flares up from time to time, including early in Tuesday’s win over the Sixers. Within the first 16 minutes, he had chucked three step-backs from 22, 16, and 15 feet, clanking all of them. The looks didn’t get much cleaner, and the bricks kept coming.
Ben Simmons is a tall order, but Tatum has to dig for something better than this.
Joel Embiid, marooned out on the perimeter, didn’t even have to work that hard for this airball.
Tatum isn’t lacking a bail-out pass on any of these plays. It’s just that at times, the Kobe is strong with this one. More disturbing than the misses themselves are the bogged-down approach: Catch the ball, take a few exploratory dribbles, sink back again, cast around for something, and settle for nothing. With glory on his brain, and with Kyrie Irving on the bench like he was last night, Tatum’s offense looks a lot less inspired. In the playoffs, where he really blossomed, Tatum kept the ball moving for a 13 percent assist rate and got to the free throw line 7.3 times per 100 possessions. So far this season, with Irving and Gordon Hayward back and intact, Tatum’s assist rate is just a hair below 9, and his free throw rate is down to 4.4 per 100—all on nearly identical usage.
But, as the rest of the game revealed, he’s still a monster when making better decisions. His raw speed makes him a lethal cutter, and he’s clever at the rim:
He’s just as good when he catches the ball and immediately—without a dribble, without a jab step—launches into whatever the hell this was:
There are the outlines of a much scarier player, a tall slasher screaming into the paint with a good selection of dribble moves to play with. Tatum is among the league’s most gifted finishers, completing 69 percent of his attempts at the rim this season, and he shoots an easy 86 percent from the stripe. He’s never better than when he’s attacking those openings in the lane before they close, and profiting from hard-earned free throws. At his best, he’s taking no dribbles, or three highly intentional ones. And even if someone as good as Embiid is protecting the paint, Tatum can still learn to kick it out and create a look better than these degenerate Mamba impressions. His shot plot from last night can basically be divvied up into Good Jayson Stuff and Bad Kobe Stuff: