Tomase: Now we know why Celtics passed on Lonzo Ball to take Jayson Tatum, and it's not his dad

John Tomase
November 08, 2017 - 10:42 am
Lonzo Ball

Russ Isabella/USA Today Sports

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While the rest of us debated Markelle Fultz vs. Lonzo Ball back in those heady couple of weeks when the Celtics owned the No. 1 pick in the draft, Danny Ainge once again proved eight steps ahead.

The Celtics boss liked both players, but he didn't love either of them. He had his sights set on someone else entirely, and we weren't sure whether we should believe him when, after trading the first overall pick to the 76ers, he claimed the player he wanted all along would be available at No. 3.

Eleven games into his NBA career, Jayson Tatum is once again making Ainge look like a genius. He has already badly outplayed the non-shooting Fultz in a win over the 76ers, and tonight at the Garden, he takes aim at Ball. If Philly's Ben Simmons hadn't missed last year with a broken foot, Tatum would be the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.

The Lakers arrive a surprising 5-5, but the newcomer making the biggest impact in purple and gold isn't LaVar's kid, but unheralded late first-rounder Kyle Kuzma, a power forward from Utah who's posting numbers similar to Tatum's while looking like the steal of the draft.

Lonzo's adjustment to the pro game has been undeniably bumpy. After getting dominated by Clippers defensive demon Patrick Beverley in his debut (3 points, 4 assists), he exploded for a 29-11-9 vs. the Suns the following night.

Since then, however, Ball has struggled mightily, reaching double-digits in points just once and assists twice. He's averaging 8.8 points and 6.9 assists a game.

His weird little slingshot jumper, thought by many to be too slow for the NBA game, has proven to be too slow for the NBA game. He's one of just two players in the league shooting below 30 percent from the field (29.9) and he's an abysmal .234 from 3-point land, which is basically where he makes his living. On most nights now, he looks scared to shoot at all, and he's not quick enough, strong enough, or refined enough to score at the rim. His outstanding court vision and playmaking skills will only take him so far. He needs to find his jumper.

Tatum, meanwhile, is playing major minutes on the best team in the East, averaging 14.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 52.9 percent from beyond the arc. He has used his length to finish at the rim and make an impact defensively (10 blocks). It is now very easy to see him growing into all of those Paul Pierce comparisons, and that's not a statement made lightly. He has been that good.

The Celtics, it seems, never gave serious thought to Ball, whose Big Baller dad made it clear he wanted his boy in Los Angeles and reportedly declined a workout in Boston. Ainge has prioritized hybrid wing players who can score and defend multiple positions, and the 6-foot-8 Tatum fits that description to a tee. The C's had little use for a pass-first point guard who can't create his own shot, even one with as high a basketball IQ as Ball.

So tonight we'll see the two square off in another battle of what is vs. what might have been. Right now, Tatum looks like everything Ball is not -- confident, fun-loving, comfortable. That can change as Ball gains more experience, but for now there's little doubt about which one is struggling to adapt to the NBA and which one has hit the ground running.

Markelle vs. Lonzo? Ainge wasn't even asking the question. He wanted Tatum all along, and now we know why.

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