Jayson Tatum’s Evolution: What Was Real?

If I could use any word to describe Jayson Tatum’s 2019-20 campaign it would be, “perplexing “. The 3rd year wing, has enjoyed a breakout season playing at an all-star level and nearly at an all-NBA level.

Just looking at basic numbers here are how his season stacks up to years prior.

Points per 75 PossessionsTS%Net Rating
2019-2024.756.2%+10.3
2018-1918.354.7%+6.8
2017-1817.158.6%+6.9 (nice)

Tatum has managed to increase his scoring volume while slightly increasing his efficiency compared to his sophomore season. If you’re just looking at his season long numbers you would be hard pressed to find out why I described his season as “perplexing”.

Lets get down to it, over the first 36 games of the season, Tatum was more or less just shooting more than ever. His scoring was at a career high but his efficiency was miserable. Through his first 36 games he was averaging 20.8 PPG, on 42% shooting overall and 35% from three. Both the FG% and 3P% were at career lows, and he was rarely able to finish at the rim.

I do not want to completely shit on Tatum’s first 2+ months, he was showing improvements in a few areas. He was cutting down on taking those dreaded efficiency killing long two’s as well as becoming a very good to great off ball defender. However, those were being overshadowed by his poor offensive efficiency (at least to me).

Before we breakdown what changed, and what improved for Jayson, let’s compare his scoring from first 36 games to his next 23 games.

PPGFG%3P%TS%FTA
Through January 9th (36 Games)20.842%35%52.6%3.9
Through March 10th (23 Games)27.949%46%61.1%6.0

How was Tatum able to achieve such a high scoring jump? Well the 3 point efficiency increased by a ludicrous 11%, and it got to a number (46%) that is unsustainable even for a great shooter like him.

In his rookie season he shot 43% from downtown on 3.8 attempts per 75, last season he followed that up by shooting 37% on 4.6 attempts per 75. So the volume went up by a small margin, and his efficiency slipped a bit (partly due to a crazy 43% rate).

Over the first 36 games this season he was only shooting 35% on 6.5 attempts per game (per 75 was unavailable for these splits), and over the next 23 games he shot 46% on 8.1 attempts per game. So as his volume has increased his efficiency was plummeting with the exception of those last 23 games.

Mechanically nothing noticeable changed, so I would attribute most of it to increased confidence. Whether that’s him getting more comfortable as a pro, or being more confident with a fully connected beard, his confidence is on full display here.

Tatum is near the league leaders in pull up 3 point shooting (45%) and step back 3 point shooting (42%), which goes to show just how confident he has been with his 3 point shot.

Early shot clock, steps to the left makes the defender pay for not fighting over the screen

Like I said, his % overall is pretty unsustainable, especially relating to those on the move shots. So I would expect some regression, but there is reason to believe he can hover around 40% from 3 on this increased volume. If Tatum can consistently be one of the leagues best off the dribble 3 point shooters, that completely changes his career trajectory in my opinion.

So other than his 3 point shooting, what else was Tatum doing better during this stretch? Well he was starting to finish at the rim at a better rate. Through January 9th Tatum was shooting an awful 55% at the rim which would put him in the 27th percentile among Forwards (Per. Cleaning the Glass). He bumped that up to a respectable 64% rate over the next 23 games, still not great, but not awful.

Tatum has got better at being able to change his pace and keep defenders on his hip as the season went along, probing through the lane finding the openings, rather than attacking at one speed.

Tatum keeps the defender on his hip in the above clip as he waits for the opening created by a Daniel Theis seal. A move Theis has been pulling off all season long creating open looks for Tatum and other Celtics. Tatum’s improved patience on these plays, has been a big reason why he ranks near the top in points per possession as the pick and roll ball handler.

One of the biggest improvements a player can make is the ability to draw fouls. Tatum started to embrace contact rather than trying to finish around the rim protector with tricky layups. This was reflected in his free throw attempts where his free throw rate was roughly 21% (hand calculated) over his first 36 games, compared to a 30% free throw late over the course of his last 23.

Initiates the contact here when he realizes he has no angle to finish this drive
Jumps into the shot blocking Davis to initiate the contact once again

One other improvement is with shot selection. When Tatum first came into the league he took a plethora of long two point attempts that came from outside of 14 feet. His rookie and sophomore season he took long two’s on 22% of all his shot attempts (Per Cleaning the Glass).

Tatum would fall in love with shots like these to start his career far too often. A low efficiency, high degree of difficulty shot, which should only be pulled out late in the shot clock.

Over the first 36 games this season he cut down on these shots a bit by taking them only 16% of the time, however this still ranked near the top of the league. Finally, over the next 23 games he cut this number down to only 8%, only attempting them when necessary (usually late shot clock). If Tatum can keep those long two’s in the rear view mirror, an improvement in efficiency is certainty something we will see.

In conclusion, a portion of this hot stretch was due to an extremely hot shooting hand. However, there are other noticeable areas of improvement, such as his shot selection and free throw rate. His confidence has hit an all time high and he has become the Celtics go-to option in crunch time, even ahead of Kemba Walker. Tatum appears to be on a trajectory that paints him as an All-NBA level player for years to come, Celtics fans should be excited.

*NOTE ALL STATS ARE FROM CLEANING THE GLASS DATABASE

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