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Our Own Jayson Tatum: One of the Great Rookies in Celtics History

When the Boston Celtics traded out of the top spot and moved down two spaces No. 3 overall to select Duke wing Jayson Tatum in the 2017 NBA Draft, the reviews were generally favorable.

Still,  questions were asked.

Why not stay at No. 1 and go with Washington guard Markelle Fultz, the consensus choice as the best player in the draft? The NBA commentariat viewed Fultz as the safest pick.

What about Kansas forward Josh Jackson? As soon as Celtics GM Danny Ainge made the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers — receiving a future first-round draft choice from the Sixers to slide to No. 3 — the draft predictors changed their mocks, listened to the buzz, heard that Ainge wanted Jackson. Obviously, Ainge would go with Johnson. (Unless he didn’t.)

Why choose Tatum? He was skilled, yes … and smart. By all indications, Tatum had the work ethic, the personal character, the competitive drive. There was a lot to like. But the Celtics already were loaded with wing players, small forwards. According to the commentariat, Tatum needed to add muscle and strength. He’d contribute as a rookie, and get a decent share of minutes, but the Celtics wouldn’t lean on him.

Yeah. OK.

“The draft was very even, we felt, at the top, all the way through maybe 5 or 6,” Ainge said. after the draft. “There was a lot of players we liked in this year’s draft. But we liked Tatum’s size, length, rebounding, shooting, intelligence, character,. There’s a lot to like about Jayson. He’s going to be a terrific player.”

Tatum — starring for the Celtics, by way of Chaminade Prep in St. Louis, and Duke University for one season, and sustained by his Imo’s — is indeed a terrific player. No one is questioning Ainge’s wisdom now. Not after Tatum followed up on a good rookie regular season with a star turn in his first NBA postseason.

Tatum opened the playoffs with 19 points and 10 rebounds in Game 1 of the first-round series against Milwaukee — becoming the third rookie in Celtics history to post a double-double in their first postseason game. The other two were Basketball Hall of Famers Tom Heinsohn and Bill Russell.

Tatum is tied with Terry Rozier as the Celtics’ leading postseason scorer, averaging 18.3 points through 11 games and playing a lead role in Boston taking  a 3-1 series lead over Philadelphia in the teams’ second-round series. With another victory, the Celtics will advance to the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and Cleveland.

Tatum has scored 20 or more points in six consecutive games. Pretty good, huh? No … that’s  historically good. Tatum is the only player in NBA history age 20 or younger to score at least 20 points in six straight postseason games. And Tatum can still add on to that.

As the Celtics go deeper into the postseason, coach Brad Stevens is increasingly confident in Tatum’s ability to handle postseason pressure and expanded responsibilities as a scorer. Boston has played shorthanded, losing top free-agent acquisition small forward Gordon Hayward to a broken leg in the first game of the season and having to go without guard Kyrie Irving (knee) since March 11.

“I always envisioned myself in these type of moments,” Tatum told reporters. “I knew that I could make something happen. But it means you’ve got to go out there and do it. You’ve got to earn that trust.”

And that makes Tatum even more impressive, more valuable. He just turned 20 on March 3. He’s actually improved on his regular-season performance level to lead one of the most venerated sports franchises in North America (any sport) on a postseason run.

“No moment is too big,” said Stevens, one of the league’s best coaches. “He’s got guts. He’s a competitive guy. Sometimes I think we misconstrue some of these slight guys when they come out of college for not being tough but he’s tough and very competitive.

“Just call the play and get out of his way.”

Fultz — the No. 1 overall pick and the “safest”  pick — has been parked on Philly’s bench for the last five postseason games for ineffective play. Coach’s decision. This, coming after Fultz appeared in only 14 regular-season games during troubling rookie campaign that included:  (1) a sudden loss of accuracy and touch on his jump shot; (2) a collapse of confidence; (3) a shoulder injury; (4) the 76ers’ shutting Fultz down to completely restructure his shooting fundamentals; (5) a falling out between Fultz and his team of personals advisors and assistants and 76ers’ management.

All of this prompted Sixers icon Julius “Dr. J.” Erving to tell ESPN his former team should have drafted Tatum instead of Fultz.  As a bonus, Tatum is badly outplaying Philly’s second-year guard Simmons — the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury.  Simmons will likely win NBA Rookie of the Year … even though he isn’t a rookie … and Tatum will probably finish third in balloting concluded before the start of the postseason.

Ainge had a vote — in the draft — and he got it right.

Ainge picked up a future first-round draft choice for the trouble … which was no trouble at all … of waiting about 20, 25 extra minutes until the Celtics’ turn came up … at which point Ainge would select Tatum … the player he would have chosen No. 1 overall.

Nicely done, Mr. Ainge.

And the Tatums are happy with how it turned out Jayson Tatum’s father, Justin Tatum, told Yahoo Sports:  “You know, Philly dropped the ball on that, but we’re happy where we’re at,  he’s definitely passed Philly. He just wanted to be drafted and he wanted to be the No. 1 pick. So that kind of deterred him a little bit, but the thing is, he landed in an unbelievable spot with the coaching, the tradition, in Boston. …  I think being in this situation definitely is better than probably being in Philly.”

Tatum averaged 13.9 points per game during the regular season, and had to push through fatigue and a mid-winter shooting slump. He got through it and is having one of the very best rookie seasons in Celtics history. And that’s saying something.

Then again, no one should be surprised. Tatum’s father was a very good player at CBC, and St. Louis U. Tatum’s godfather is Larry Hughes (CBC,  SLU, and 17 NBA seasons.) With Hughes as his unofficial uncle, the  really  young Jayson Tatum not only learned a lot from Hughes — but he had a chance to spend time in gyms with NBA players no less famous than Kobe Jones and LeBron James.

Before wrapping this up, please permit me to recap some of the more notable accomplishments of Jayson Tatum’s rookie season … and it ain’t over yet:

Regular Season

  • Ranks 8th in Celtics history for most points (1,112) by a rookie
  • Set a Celtics record for most 3-pointers by a rookie, 105.
  • Only four Celtics rookies played more minutes.
  • Tatum’s rookie scoring average of 13.9 points per game ranks 12th but is ahead of Celts legends Jo Jo White, Kevin McHale, and Frank Ramsey (among others.)
  • Tatum had the 2nd best effective field-goal percentage (.538) by a rookie.
  • Tatum’s 7.1 Win Shares is tied with Heinsohn for No. 2 among Boston rookies; only Larry Bird (11.2) had more.
  • He ranked 4th in franchise history in Value Over Replacement in a rookie season.
  • Because Tatum didn’t turn 20 until March 3, this was considered his Age 19 season. In NBA history, the only rookies (any team) at age 19 or younger to score more points than Tatum in a season were Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, and Andrew Wiggins.

Postseason …so far 

  • Tatum broke Larry Bird’s rookie record for most consecutive games scoring 20+ points. Bird had four 20+ games in a row during the 1980 playoffs. Tatum is at six and counting.
  • Tatum already ranks second in franchise history for most points by a rookie in a postseason. Heinsohn is first with 229 points in 1957;  Tatum sits second with 201; and Bird is third with 192 back in 1980. Other Boston rookies in the postseason top 10 include Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, McHale, John Havlicek, Ramsey, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones.
  • Tatum’s current postseason average of 18.3 points per game ranks third among Celtics rookies; Heinsohn averaged 22.9 points in ’57 and Bird scored 21.3 per game in ’80.
  • Again, because Tatum turned 20 in March, this was considered his age 19 season. So he already holds the NBA record for most postseason points (201) by a rookie age 19 or younger. But if you insist that we expand that to age 20 or younger, fine. Magic Johnson is in the lead, with 203 points. Tatum needs 3 points to go ahead of Magic.
  • In league history only Stephen Marbury averaged more points per postseason game as a rookie age 19 or younger. Marbury averaged 21.3 points for Minnesota in 1997. I suppose it’s possible for Tatum (18.3) to take his postseason scoring average above Marbury.

It’s just great to see Tatum thriving on the biggest stage of his sport.

Said teammate Marcus Morris: “Man, he’s special. We’ve been saying that all year. That dude is special. He comes through in the clutch, he has no fear. He’s playing big time basketball.”

Barely 20, Tatum already is one of the best and brightest NBA talents to emerge from St. Louis.

By the end of his career, Tatum could be the best NBA player … ever … to represent STL.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie