Tomase: Jayson Tatum making Markelle Fultz trade look like colossal steal for Celtics

John Tomase
October 25, 2017 - 10:28 am
Jayson Tatum of the Celtics goes up to block Markelle Fultz of the 76ers.

Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports


The deal that sent the No. 1 pick from the Celtics to the Sixers landed in Boston like a half-melted ice cream cake.

It's still ice cream. It's still cake. Slop some in a bowl and it'll satisfy a sugar fix . . . but man, what a letdown.

We wanted Markelle Fultz. We had sold ourselves on Markelle Fultz. The point guard out of Washington may not have been the most slam-dunk consensus No. 1 pick ever -- did he really only win nine games in college? -- but the draftniks agreed he belonged at the head of the class.

Danny Ainge had other ideas. The Celtics boss has spent the last five years on the hunt for a transcendent player and he clearly doubted Fultz's potential to be one. Otherwise, he never would've parted with the first overall pick.

In retrospect, Ainge's willingness to swap it for No. 3 and a future potential lottery selection should've told us all we needed to know. This wasn't some Belichickian volume deal meant to accrue future assets. It was a direct indictment of Fultz. The potential franchise superstar was sitting there, and Danny said, "Pass."

He insisted that the player he wanted all along would be there at No. 3. He knew Philadelphia, with its Process-driven stable of big men, would select Fultz, the most complete point guard in the draft. He knew the Lakers, sitting at No. 2, would opt for hometown hero Lonzo Ball.

That left Duke forward Jayson Tatum waiting for him at No. 3, and one week into the NBA season, anyway, Ainge has another potential home run on his hands.

With Gordon Hayward out for the year following a broken ankle and Marcus Morris on the shelf until Halloween with a bad knee, Tatum has stepped up in a major way.

He's coming off the best night of his young career, with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting and four steals in a 110-89 win over the Knicks. The victory featured his entire offensive arsenal, from a putback dunk over two defenders, to an alley-oop layup in transition after a soaring block on the defensive end, to 4-of-6 shooting on 3-pointers, to a couple of smooth baskets in the mid-range and high post.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to our south, an entirely different story is unfolding in Philadelphia. It should be hyperbole to say that Fultz's first week has been a disaster. I mean, how bad could four games really be?

But all it takes is one free throw to recognize that Fultz is a mess with a  capital M. His agent insists he's battling a shoulder injury that has made it difficult to raise his arm over his head. The team insists he's healthy enough to play.

What's not up for debate is how painful it is to watch him shoot anything beyond a layup. Presumably because of the shoulder issues, he overhauled his mechanics to something that would make DeAndre Jordan or Chris Dudley wince.

Fultz's setup basically looks like what a five-year-old would build with his first Erector set. He looks like he could topple at any moment. The results have been awful. Not only is Fultz shooting 50 percent on free throws (6-for-12), he hasn't even attempted a 3-pointer. Like, literally, zero. And this from a guy who launched five a game in college while shooting over 41 percent.

Who knows what kind of damage this is doing to Fultz's psyche, especially since one of the knocks on him was lack of killer instinct and a willingness to coast. While it's entirely possible that his problems are 100 percent physical and will disappear when his shoulder heals, these are not the kind of questions you want to be entertaining about the No. 1 overall pick.

Meanwhile, Tatum already looks comfortable in an NBA starting lineup at age 19. We questioned his range coming out of Duke, and I suspect that will become more of an issue as the season progresses, but for now he's shooting .455 from distance. As his body matures, it's easy to envision him becoming a matchup nightmare at all three levels.

On Tuesday night, for instance, he freed himself for an open jumper at the top of the key with a crossover that left a Knicks defender tripping over his own feet. He scores at the rim with minimal motion and a soft touch, using full extension to turn what would otherwise be acrobatic finishes into simple flicks of the wrist. The Paul Pierce comparisons feel apt. He's also shown some DeMar DeRozan in his ability to elevate over defenders with a precise mid-range game.

A week into the season, there's a lot to like, and judging from the leap teammate Jaylen Brown is making in Year 2, a lot to look forward to as he continues to grow and mature. He's putting up 14.8 points a game while learning the ropes.

Meanwhile, the Sixers are already in full damage-control mode with Fultz, whose agent would pretty clearly like to shut him down. He's averaging six points off the bench and looks completely lost. Maybe someday we'll view this as nothing more than an injury-fueled blip on Fultz's rise to stardom.

But for now, Danny strikes again, and rival GMs should probably stop taking his calls. We rightfully figured no shorthand for theft would ever top, "the Nets trade," but there's already a chance it will be supplanted by "Fultz for Tatum."

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