Tomase: Jayson Tatum finally hitting rookie wall -- now what do Celtics do?

John Tomase
January 24, 2018 - 12:39 pm
Jayson Tatum of the Celtics.

Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

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We told ourselves the lie because for nearly three months it felt like irrefutable truth. We told ourselves Jayson Tatum was different.

Most teenagers have no idea what they're doing when they reach the NBA. For every LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or Kevin Durant who pump in 20 points a game, there are a dozen Kobe Bryants (7.6) Aaron Gordons (5.2) or Giannis Antetokounmpos (6.8), who appear varying degrees of overwhelmed.

It doesn't mean those players won't eventually be stars. It just means it will take a while.

Tatum, in particular, should've joined them. His game at Duke -- angular drives from the high post and mid-range jumpers -- seemed tailor-made to be swallowed up by bigger, stronger NBA defenders. Check back with us in a couple of years, rook, when your body catches up to your game.

But then two unexpected things happened. Well, three. First, Gordon Hayward went down for the season, creating an opening that desperately needed filling. Then Tatum started making 3's -- something he couldn't even do in high school -- at an insane, league-leading rate. And then he showed an ability to put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim with either dunks or clever Euro-steps. It turns out he plays a lot longer than his listed 6-foot-8, both in stride and wingspan.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics were rolling. Kyrie Irving provided the bulk of the scoring, but Tatum did his part, particularly in crunch time. An early-January victory over the Nets remained in the balance until Tatum beat his man baseline for a dunk, and then drilled the clinching 3 from the corner after Irving had hustled to corral his own miss.

Multi-dimensional Sixers rookie Ben Simmons had a lock on the Rookie of the Year award, but Tatum would earn votes. In any other year, the conventional wisdom went, he'd be an easy choice to win it himself.

Throughout each of these revelations, we marveled that Tatum could be playing at such a high level while only 19 years old. What we failed to do was anticipate reality -- you can count on one hand the number of teenagers who played a whole season without hitting the wall. Hard.

It's inevitable. The first batch of teens to reach the NBA jumped straight from high school, where seasons last around 30 games and the competition might as well be toddlers. The next group played one season of college ball covering maybe 35 games.

In the NBA, that's known as mid-December. A contender like the Celtics can plan on playing anywhere from four to six more months. That's a lot of extra basketball, and at some point, even four-year college stars will wilt.

That time appears to be now for Tatum, who has hit the first slump of his career. It isn't so much that his numbers have cratered, though they've certainly fallen. It's how he looks.

In Tuesday's inexcusable 108-107 loss to the lowly Lakers, Tatum was invisible. While 27th overall pick Kyle Kuzma exploded for 28 points, Tatum struggled. He shot just 1-for-6 from the field and finished with four points, tied for the lowest output of his young career.

He hasn't topped 11 points in two weeks and his 3-point shooting has suffered significantly since he suffered a gruesome dislocated pinky in a loss to the Heat on Dec. 20. The training staff snapped his finger back into place and he returned that night, but Tatum is shooting just .313 on 3's since, compared to a league-leading .515 entering that night.

His 3-point percentage stands at .449, still good for second in the league, but he hasn't looked anywhere near that confident in a month. Perhaps it's the finger, perhaps it's the wall.

Both explanations make sense. The last couple of weeks have seen an uptick in Tatum losing the ball on his way to the rim, or failing to finish once he gets there. He missed two layups against the Lakers and lost the handle with 53 seconds left on the layup attempt that would've drawn the Celtics within two.

The Celtics lived this last year with Jaylen Brown, who entered the league far less polished than Tatum. Brown dropped 19 points on LeBron James and the Cavaliers in just his fifth career game before seeing his minutes plummet. He routinely went two and three weeks between double-digit points and in one month-long stretch last December, saw his minutes cut to 10 a night.

He hit the wall and didn't find minutes until necessity arrived in the form of an Avery Bradley injury last January. But at no point did the Celtics rely on Brown to be a foundational player. By the time the playoffs arrived, he was an afterthought. He took a DNP in Game 5 against the Bulls after barely playing two minutes total in Games 3 and 4. He had some hustle moments against the Wizards and Cavaliers, but they were considered a bonus.

The Celtics have no choice but to rely on Tatum for much, much more, and that could be a problem. Wednesday's game marked his 48th in the NBA. He played just 29 at Duke last year. That disparity will only grow over the next four months.

Tatum was never supposed to shoulder this kind of offensive load. He was supposed to sit behind Hayward and learn in a controlled environment.

The Celtics had no choice but to accelerate that timetable, and we were lying to ourselves if we thought it wouldn't eventually come at a price.

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