This is supposed to be Jayson Tatum’s breakout season.
But nearly two months into 2019-20, his numbers are underwhelming. He’s been far and away the Boston Celtics’ most influential player in on-off metrics, though, making it easy to dismiss his individual struggles.
Is Tatum coming into his own as a true impact player? Or is the Celtics’ team-wide success inaccurately portraying his influence?
Tatum’s top-line stats represent the individual growth that most anticipated is coming along. He’s averaging 20.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game, all career-highs.
But a closer look at his performance this season reveals a player who’s been sorely disappointing offensively.
Tatum is shooting an ugly 40.6 percent from the field, worst of his three seasons by a comfortable margin. He’s also connecting on a career-low 36.4 percent from deep, though that minor dip compared to last season can be explained by an uptick in three-point rate. Still, for a player who flashed world-class shooting prowess as a rookie, Tatum’s relative struggles as a jump-shooter – including 33.0 percent on non-paint twos – are certainly worth monitoring.
More concerning, though, is his shocking inability to finish at even a league-average level around the rim. Tatum is shooting just 52.9 percent from the restricted area, the type of accuracy normally reserved for pint-sized guards.
No one expects Tatum to finish like LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo; he isn’t an overly explosive athlete and lacks the raw power to knock defenders off balance in the paint. Still, for a player whose combination of skill and size has always been mouth-watering, Tatum’s failure to develop an array of crafty finishes and a viable floater game is damning.
Despite pointed critiques of his affinity for mid-range jumpers, he’s actually taking more of those shots this season. His free throw rate has barely moved after dropping to a problematic level in 2018-19, and Tatum’s .91 points per pick-and-roll ranks worst among Boston’s five best players.
By any objective measure, Tatum has disappointed on an individual basis. Even if his newfound labors around the rim didn’t exist, his ongoing inability to get to the line consistently and reliance on the mid-range would be reason for worry. As is, Tatum’s poor personal start makes it time to think about re-evaluating his place in Boston’s long-term hierarchy.
Well, except for the fact there’s ample data indicating that he’s been far and away the Celtics’ best player.
Boston is 18.1 points per 100 possessions better with Tatum on the floor, a gaudy number accomplished by equal effectiveness on both sides of the ball. No other player on the roster has a net on-off rating better than 5.5.
The Celtics turn the ball over far less, shoot more free throws, grab more offensive rebounds, and play in transition with much greater frequency when Tatum is in the game. Broadly considered Boston’s third-best defender on a good day, he somehow ranks fourth in the NBA in defensive real plus-minus.
Obviously, Tatum has made a much more positive influence than his numbers suggest. But it’s also clear he’s not the bellwether two-way force that many advanced statistics say he is.
Either way, there’s some encouragement to be gleaned from Tatum’s early-season play – both for him and the Celtics at large. If his finishing woes prove a blip, for instance, Boston could have another threshold to reach. On the other hand, the disconnect between his personal stats and on-off data seems ripe for regression one way or the other.
Which is it? Only time will tell, but keep a close eye on Tatum as the season progresses. He could very well prove the difference between Boston competing for the Finals and flaming out of the playoffs early.