The quiet, overwhelming greatness of Jayson Tatum

The quiet, overwhelming greatness of Jayson Tatum

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“This is my sh—!”

Of course, no one outside the very first few rows could actually hear Jayson Tatum’s roar as the 76ers slowly sulked into their fourth timeout. In the arena, all discernible language was muffled by every kind of dizzying scream. Those watching at home were treated to Mike Breen’s best approximation, who—after witnessing Tatum’s punctuation mark—loudly proclaimed, “It’s a carnival!”

Tatum had just laced a walk-up three-pointer for his 38th point, accounting for over half of his team’s 73. The Celtics—though mostly Tatum himself—had scored 16 points in just under four minutes to open up a 15-point lead in Game 7 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Second Round.

Tatum then stopped for a moment to soak up every ray of adulation TD Garden had to offer. He turned slowly, flexed his shoulder muscles and turned toward his people. The ESPN cameras—not supposed to show profanity even in its lip-read form—couldn’t look away from Tatum as he twice pointed to the parquet floor, claiming ownership of it in not so many words.

The other Celtics kept their distance, rightly realizing that the volcanic Tatum was too hot to handle. Malcolm Brogdon, the closest player to the scene, began lightly jogging back to the bench as to not steal the show, merely cracking a smile as he ran. Jaylen Brown was already at a safe distance, and threw both hands up to demand the fans shower Tatum with even more cheers. And then there was Marcus Smart, the lone Celtic that shared Tatum’s ESPN close-up. Unable to contain the grin on his face, Smart instead spoke without moving his lips, nodding in time as to say, “yeah, this is your sh—”.

Then 25 years old, Tatum had summoned every ounce of his greatness to send the Celtics through, but it hadn’t always been that simple. Likely the last man ever to wear number zero in Boston had anything but a straight path to superstardom, though it somehow still makes all the sense in the world. His greatness is loud at times and quiet at others, overstated, understated and sometimes just stated out loud in Tatum’s signature deadpan tone. But it definitely still is, has been, and shall be, his sh— until further notice.

Today’s iteration of Tatum is a calming routine, his night-over-night greatness a foregone conclusion as the Celtics run away with the Eastern Conference. At least for the rest of the regular season, it’s like a cup of coffee or a chapter of your favorite book.

As with most things we rely on, it’s hard to imagine what life was like without it. But it’s the evolution of his game that has made the 2024 campaign so fulfilling, as he manages to improve every year and become a more complete force for basketball destruction. Tatum’s greatness has become so fundamental to Celtics basketball that it can even be easy to forget that it’s happening if one doesn’t stop and smell the roses.

Tatum is the quintessential how-does-he-have-that-many-points guy, as each bucket feels like merely the natural progression of the game. The score has to go up somehow, and every crafty layup, post turnaround or side-step three always feels like the right way to do that.

In the Celtics’ recent Valentine’s Day butchering of the Brooklyn Nets, the Al Horford and Jaylen Brown-less Celtics won by a clean 50 points. Anyone who was at dinner for parts of the first and second quarter would question if Tatum even played in the game, given how the second half was populated with the Svi Mykhailiuks and Oshae Brissetts of the world. As the final buzzer sounded, I challenged myself to remember any shot Tatum had made, only able to think of a single floater that Eddie House said “should have been an and-one.”

But like clockwork, there Tatum was in the box score with his customary 20 points on 28 minutes, completing his second night of the back-to-back having dropped 61 total on the Nets in about 28 hours. The Celtics were on cruise control to the All-Star break, and yet Tatum—like it was just breathing—remained at an elite level.

Tatum’s list of career accolades reads like a grocery list for a shepherd’s pie recipe for an NBA great. All-Rookie First Team, All-NBA Third Team, 5x NBA All-Star, and his 2x All-NBA First Team nods are the meat, peas and potatoes, while his 2023 All-Star Game MVP, 2022 Eastern Conference Finals MVP and 2020 Olympic Gold Medal give some flare to the garnish. It’s a great, consistent dish.

But there’s also something missing, something that would elevate this cuisine from a comfort food staple to a main course worthy of a Michelin star. According to the NBA legend cookbook, some possible additions could be a regular season MVP, that new Clutch Player of the Year award, or—oh yeah—an NBA championship.

“It’s hard getting to this point,” Tatum said in a press conference after losing the 2022 NBA Finals. “And it’s even harder getting over the hump and winning it.”

Like always, Tatum chose honesty and maturity where he could have resorted to anger, sadness, or disappointment. He certainly felt those things too, but he opted to level with fans about how difficult the journey had been, and how difficult it was to come up short even still.

Nor was the following season any less crushing, particularly for Tatum himself. The Celtics fought back from a 3-0 series deficit against the Miami Heat only for Tatum to injure his ankle on the first play of Game 7.

“It’s tough because it kind of impacted me the rest of the night,” Tatum said during his press conference after the loss. “It was just frustrating that I was kind of like a shell of myself. It was tough to move.”

Even then, with his ultimate goal ripped away by a freak accident, Tatum seemed reluctant to make excuses. It only ever “kind of” impacted him, though he could hardly walk or run all night. He must have felt the full range of emotions, since he’s only human, but he knew it wouldn’t change the result. So, he steeled his nerves and soldiered through another heartbreaking press conference, his fourth deep playoff exit in six years.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Tatum was never billed as the savior of Boston, nor was he meant to be the centerpiece of whatever title contender the Celtics were building back in 2017. Most Celtics fans had spent the month of June convincing themselves that number-one prospect Markelle Fultz was the missing piece. Tatum wasn’t just an afterthought so much as he wasn’t even on the radar.

But then Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge traded the pick to the 76ers in exchange for the third pick and an additional first-rounder three days before the draft, taking Fultz off the table and ensuring the Celtics would select either Tatum or Josh Jackson to fill a need at small forward. But Tatum had already missed out on the customary pre-draft hype from his home fans, who didn’t know until 72 hours before that he was in the picture.

“Tatum may not be the athlete that Josh Jackson is or the versatile defender that Jonathan Isaac is,” wrote Mike Schmitz at DraftExpress the night before the 2017 Draft. “But at the very least, he projects as a polished scorer and longtime NBA starter with All-Star upside if his perimeter game continues to evolve.”

Tatum’s career has been the story of how that upside blended with an entirely unique situation for a 19-year-old wunderkind. The Celtics team he arrived at had just won 53 games and grabbed the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. Fans didn’t need nor even want a young player to take the car keys immediately. The Celtics were one step away from greatness, and had they stayed healthy the season before, they might already be there.

The success of 2016 came on the back of an unfathomably great season from Isaiah Thomas, who despite his 5’9” frame averaged nearly 30 points per game and finished third in MVP voting. Thomas was the current savior of the post-Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett Celtics, but was unable to finish the Eastern Conference Finals with a hip injury, the first in a string of ailments that would come to define the rest of his career.

Chicago Bulls Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden

Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Nevertheless, the Celtics looked to reload, adding their first major free agent signing in years in Gordon Hayward in early July and shipping off Thomas for a brand-new savior in Kyrie Irving in late August. History won’t remember it as such, but Jayson Tatum was undoubtedly the third most important addition from the 2017 offseason, having held the headlines in Boston for all of two weeks.

Tatum started his first career game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the power forward position, with the newly acquired Hayward at small forward. Tatum’s size and reach to play at the four instead of the three had been a major talking point pre-draft, so this figured to be a rapid test of his NBA prospects.

Then, five minutes into Tatum’s NBA career, Hayward broke his leg. It was an unmitigated disaster, with the hopes of an entire fan base built up higher than ever only to be shattered in an instant. Tatum suddenly went from the second or third wing behind Hayward and the second-year Jaylen Brown into an equal partnership with the latter. The pressure his situation had lacked suddenly grew three sizes in an instant.

Then in March, it either grew three more or went away altogether, depending on who you ask. When the only remaining savior Kyrie Irving was ruled out for the postseason with a knee injury and with LeBron James tearing through the Eastern Conference once again, the Celtics lacked any logical hopes of making it out.

But hope springs eternal even in the face of impossibility, and the comically shorthanded Celtics began their miracle run back to the Eastern Conference Finals on the backs of a core that sounds familiar today: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, and Marcus Smart.

Replacing Morris with Robert Williams III and Rozier with Derrick White, that’s the lineup that the Celtics employed in the 2022 NBA Finals. In the spirit of never wrong, only early, the Celtics had stumbled into the future four years before it came for real.

Tatum shined throughout the 2018 playoffs, particularly obliterating the 76ers in the second round by averaging nearly 24 points per game in the five game gentlemen’s sweep, another tale that rings familiar to Celtics fans. And while the young and hungry 2018 team would lose in a shockingly competitive series with the Cavaliers, the future that had been spit on by injuries suddenly looked bright again.

And it looked particularly bright for Tatum, who went from Boston’s best young weapon to a national sensation in a uniquely breathtaking flash of brilliance.

Most remember Tatum’s first outburst onto the national scene as his cataclysmic dunk on LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. It’s an iconic moment in recent Celtics history, one that gave fans something to believe in even in the loss. It also set the internet ablaze in an instant, with Mike Breen again offering the perfect encapsulation.

“Tatum… drives down, and throws it down! Wow!”

Breen and his co-commentators then remain completely silent for 13 full seconds, allowing the moment to marinate properly and for the Celtics fans lucky enough to be in the building to set the mood themselves.

What most won’t remember about the moment was how Tatum found himself in that position, or how he—in a game where both teams struggled mightily to score—found a red carpet directly to the paint and James, awaiting his Kodak moment.

It was a set play out of a timeout, after then-head coach Brad Stevens felt the Celtics were settling for too many jump shots. Tatum began the play standing completely still in the right corner before Horford set a pin-down for him on Tristan Thompson, allowing Tatum a free burst around the corner into the paint. Big Al—the lone stable veteran of Tatum’s career—had set up his youngest teammate up perfectly to show the world what he had in store.

The moment is also one that Tatum himself has discussed ad nauseam in press conferences, podcasts and interviews, though you always get the sense he’d rather not. After the loss, when asked about the moment he “went up against” LeBron was spontaneous or not, Tatum leaned forward and responded with a confused look on his face.

“When?”

Most would have a hard time thinking about anything else, but Tatum clearly had his mind on the loss, not the dunk. After the reporter clarified, Tatum offered a short, inoffensive quip about how he “had to get him back” for a few shots James hit in Cleveland. But he was sure to finish the answer with his textbook humility.

“I meant no disrespect by it,” Tatum said calmly. “Just in the moment. I made a play, just showing emotion.”

When asked about the moment in 2020 by All The Smoke’s Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, Tatum’s first response was a beleaguered sigh, remarking how he still sees it every day, with people either tagging him in clips or sending it to him directly. But even through the humility, Tatum couldn’t help but admit it was special.

“I turned the corner, and everything kind of slowed down for a second,” Tatum said when he saw James in the paint. “It’s like… I gotta try to dunk it.”

Cleveland Cavaliers v Boston Celtics - Game Seven

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Tatum has a poster of the dunk in his upstairs hallway, as do his mother and father in their homes. While it’s unlikely that James himself has a poster, his face in the moment says plenty about his feelings.

This was 2018 LeBron James, a force of nature singularly focused on destroying his opponent with blunt, mature physicality. At that point, Tatum was leagues below him and the third or fourth-best player on his own team. When he squared up with James, the latter should have been irate or appealed to the referee for a technical.

But James’ face was a mixture of acknowledgment and curiosity, giving Tatum a solid one-and-a-half second stare that didn’t hold a shred of malice. It was as if James felt his greatness, if only for a moment, when the two met at the rim and needed to investigate it further.

The replay where James’ face is most visible ran a few minutes after the dunk itself, when ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy offered the final word on the one play that would live on from the loss.

“If you dunk on the king, you can be king for the moment!”

It was truly only for a moment, but it set the stage for something — something that would slowly come into focus over the next five seasons, and continues to crystallize today.

Since the moment he stepped foot into the NBA, Tatum has started in all 94 playoff games the Celtics have played in. Beyond his flashy slam on James and savior-level performances in both the 2022 and 2023 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Tatum has been unbelievably durable.

His near-constant availability—along with that of Brown, who has played in 105 playoff games and started 85—has allowed the Celtics near-unrivaled postseason consistency, with the Celtics and Tatum appearing in four out of the last six Eastern Conference Finals and never once missing the playoffs.

Like everyone, Tatum was molded by his situation. Yet the greatness that emerged had just as much to do with Tatum himself as it did with the conditions in Boston. Nature versus nurture is a question as old as time, though as Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “only Sith deal in absolutes.”

It’s true that Tatum had the once-in-a-generation privilege of being a top-3 pick by the previous year’s number one seed. Most lottery picks—never mind those in the true top echelon like him—land on teams with disappointed fans looking for a messiah or at least some answers. Tatum dealt with none of that, with Boston treating his arrival more like a procedural matter as several flashier pieces came to town.

The Celtics also had several insurance policies for Tatum should he fail to succeed at the NBA level, with Brown showing flashes of brilliance as a rookie and Hayward coming in as a proven All-Star wing. Even Ainge—master of his craft as he was—likely realized it was historically unlikely that both back-to-back number three picks in Brown and Tatum turned into superstars, but equally unlikely that neither did.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat - Game Six

Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Would Tatum have become what he is today—the undisputed captain of the title-favorite Celtics—without Hayward’s injury offering him more opportunities immediately? Would the playoff maestro have developed such indomitable nerves if Irving had dominated each possession, affording Tatum very few ball-handling chances?

Maybe, though it’s equally like that Tatum made his own breaks. While these situations forced him to change course, his character was never far from the foreground. It is remarkable that a 20-year-old rookie could play with such poise in his first playoff run, especially missing his team’s stated captains. It showed what Tatum already had inside of him, the ability and desire to run the show on the parquet, and eventually to declare it his own.

Tatum has also remained monumentally uncontroversial throughout his career, staying far away from the eventual antics of Irving and managing to remain almost completely free of off-court drama. For a long while, the only non-basketball indulgence Tatum granted the media were adorable stories and courtside appearances from his six-year-old son, Deuce, an essential member of Celtics nation.

“I’m around him every day. I was 19 when I got drafted, it’s kind of like we’re growing up together,” Tatum said about Deuce before the 2022 Finals. “As he’s gotten older, I’m going through my career, sharing these moments, experiencing this together as we grow up.”

Tatum has since expanded his off-court appearances, giving the occasional interview or podcast appearance. Recently, Tatum appeared on CBS Mornings to announce his partnership with So-Fi to pledge over $1 million to single-parent households in St. Louis, a situation he himself grew up in. In a three-piece suit on network television, Tatum showed the world again his measured and balanced persona, never doing too much or too little.

On the court, Tatum is known to be a bit more fiery, frequently complaining to referees about foul calls or, far more often, the lack thereof. He’s been ejected three times in his career but twice already this season, both times talking the official’s ear off for multiple possessions before receiving his second technical.

Maturity beyond his years has always been his calling card, but that’s never meant a lack of passion on the basketball side of things. After Derrick White converted an impossible tip-in to win Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, Tatum and Brown shared a hug postgame. But it wasn’t a normal basketball-player-hug, but rather one to make sure they could both stay standing. Their faces say it all as they held each other up. Unable to process the emotions alone, they did it together.

“Ooo-wee,” said the exasperated Tatum postgame, his hands still hiding his face from the emotional explosion that had just taken place. “That sh— was crazy.”

Philadelphia 76ers (88) Vs. Boston Celtics (112) at TD Garden

Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

What makes Jayson Tatum great comes through in that emotion and in his silent scream from the 76ers game. Sometimes it’s right out loud, other times inaudible to all but those closest to him. Yet somehow it’s always clear. It can be lost in translation or drowned out by other conversation, sometimes even strained by talk of expectations, rankings, or statistics. But it’s never really gone, and can’t ever be truly contained.

Tatum is an All-Star starter and unequivocally one of the best players in the game. But in the world of NBA discourse, many will worry about exactly where he stands among his peers.

Those looking to put Tatum’s greatness in its proper box would ask questions like, “is he top-5?” “Will he ever win an MVP?” “Will he ever get over the hump?”

Those questions are fair to ask, and at least sometimes fun. But they miss the reality of Tatum’s greatness, and the indescribable consistency with which we experience it. It’s impossible to overrate or underrate him, as he is so undeniably special yet still has so much to prove. The only risk, then, is we take it for granted.

It has always felt like Tatum has lacked peers, with the other twenty-something greats like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Edwards either being just too old or too young. Those in his proper age group either saw playoff success recently or not at all, and none come close to Tatum’s unmatched durability.

Tatum’s defining characteristic hasn’t ever been one concrete thing. His scoring ability is all-world but far from wholly unique, nor is he an especially great passer or the league’s most formidable defender or rebounder. He is great at all of those things, but never became a magician at one.

Tatum’s superpower has instead been his presence on—and eventual leadership of—winning teams. The Celtics currently boast an NBA-best 43-12 record, with a six-game stranglehold on the Eastern Conference. To this point, this is the winningest team Tatum has ever been on, and the Celtics are more poised than ever to make a run at the Finals. Nothing would feel ahead of schedule anymore, and there are no more saviors on the horizon.

It may be tempting to wonder if we will ever be able to fully enjoy Tatum’s greatness if the Celtics never win a championship with him at the helm. Should his career accolades remain shepherd’s pie forever, would fans look back and remember a man that never could get to the top instead of one of the great players in Celtics history?

Perhaps they will be forced to. That’s the cruel reality of the NBA, as however compelling the story, remarkable the consistency, or memorable the body of work, history will remember the best by their greatest achievements and most crushing failures. Should Tatum and the Celtics never reach the promised land, that will be in the first paragraph of his legacy.

But even through all the noise—past present and future—Tatum’s greatness is undeniably his own. It’s one part youthful upside, two parts basketball terminator and four parts intangible superstar quality, all held together by enough maturity and experience to go around.

Tatum hasn’t spoken a lot about his legacy, but said enough in an interview with The Messenger’s Jeff Goodman to earn the last word. Some would say he had done enough already, but he certainly doesn’t think so.

“I would love to be on the Mount Rushmore of Celtics. Bird, Russell, Paul Pierce and those guys. They paved the way. The one thing all those guys have is chips. I have to get to the top of the mountain to even be considered one of those guys. I want to be an all-time great, I want to be known as a winner, and I believe I will be.”



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