Jayson Tatum opens up on quest to become next face of NBA: ‘It’s mine to take’ – The Athletic

Jared WeissFeb 21, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS — Every trip to the gas station is a scavenger hunt for Jayson Tatum. Sure, he’s there to fill up the Rolls, but the real trophy of all his success and accomplishments is in the snack aisle.

Sitting among all the snacks he used to have as a kid, there is a bag of chips with his face on them.

“If we’re at a gas station, I always still buy my bag of chips because I used to dream about moments like these,” Tatum said with a smile.

Basketball is normal for him, no matter the stage. The court is one place that has stayed the same. It’s everything else that comes with the job that has taken some getting used to.

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“It was never about the money and the cars and being famous or that lifestyle,” said Tatum. “I truly love the game because I love basketball, not for all the things that come with it. There’s a lot of people that play the game and get caught up in the lifestyle and choose that over the game.”

But as Tatum turns 26 next month and starts to enter what should be his prime, he is starting to think big picture. He can sense his career mortality off in the distance. What will his basketball journey mean in the end?

“I’ve realized that more now, just because I blinked and I remember my first game like it was yesterday,” Tatum said. “So, now to be in year seven, and I still feel super young, I can see a time when this s— can come to an end. I’m just trying to maximize that window.”

While Tatum has spent almost every season of his career looking at the precipice of a championship, his closest call resulted in his biggest epiphany.

It was in the 2022 NBA Finals, when Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and the Warriors completely took him out of his game. Tatum had grown into a good enough playmaker to run the offense, but not to go all the way. He had to learn to get comfortable playing slower to manipulate the defense and dominate with his physicality.

It was a similar moment to his junior year of high school, when he lost in the Missouri state semifinals as the defense doubled him and took the ball out of his hands. A dejected Tatum was back in the gym the next day, instead of taking time off, as he worked toward winning the title the following season.

Some years later, he was facing a similar problem at the highest level. He didn’t know how to manipulate double teams to get his teammates consistently open so the Celtics offense wouldn’t shut down. Now that he had seen what winning a championship was like up close, he set out to spend the summer focused on becoming a new player.

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Tatum had turned to golf as an escape from the work in the gym and the practice court, but decided to put his clubs away after the Finals. No distractions.

“The easiest way to say it is, I was devastated,” Tatum said. “I got so close and didn’t perform the way I wanted to, and we didn’t win. At that time, besides my family, nothing else mattered but getting better and getting back to that point.”

Jayson Tatum said the NBA Finals loss in 2022 was a tipping point of his career. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

While Tatum led Boston to a Game 1 victory by racking up a career-high 13 assists, he couldn’t keep that going for an entire series. He had to learn how to really run an offense.

That summer taught Tatum to appreciate moving the ball as part of a big picture, rather than just a way to solve a defense possession-by-possession. With an overhauled roster designed to maximize his evolution as a game manager, the Celtics have been the best team in the NBA all season.

“As good we are, they’re still going to try to double-team me,” Tatum said. “It’s all about just getting that pick, I draw two on me, throw it over the top to Jrue (Holiday) or (Derrick) White, and they kick it to open shooters. If we do that four or five times in a row, they have to change what they’re doing.”

That was the key for Tatum, learning how to think the game as a 48-minute chess match rather than a point-for-point battle. As Tatum grew into a creator and the team finally moved on from pairing him with a star point guard, he had the ball in his hands more than ever.

The hard part was accepting that responsibility also meant giving it up.

“It’s just about trusting that it’s going to come back,” Tatum said. “I’m going to get my shots, get my points. It’s just about trusting the process. It’s tough when you’re younger, you just want everything to happen so fast and how you want it to happen, but it don’t work like that.”

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Tatum’s maturation is happening in parallel to his teammate and fellow All-Star Jaylen Brown, who has likewise adapted to the demands of helping carry the franchise. When the keys to the franchise were first handed to the Jays, the debate over whether they could play together dominated the Celtics’ narrative.

But the oversimplification that they are both scoring wings missed two crucial factors. The first was that they were in the middle of the leap from off the ball to running the offense. The more important distinction is their tempo and rhythm.

Brown often explodes when the game starts, getting out into transition early on and bringing the pressure on defense. Tatum tends to work his way into the game as it goes on and prefers this dynamic.

“I think it’s just our personalities, right?” Tatum said. “JB, ever since I’ve been on the team, he’s always just come out and started the game really aggressive. That plays to his advantage; that’s the way he gets his juices flowing. I’m a naturally laid-back guy. I kind of see things out first; and then, I find a way to impact the game when I need to, and we’ve found that balance.”

Tatum essentially has a schedule for how he manages the game. He might not even take a shot for the first few minutes as Brown seizes control and Kristaps Porziņģis draws attention in the pick-and-roll.

There are a few of those step-back heat checks from Tatum in the opening stanza of the game. He rarely sizes up a defender in space and then tries to barrel his way through defenses.

He saves that for the bridge, those moments in the middle of each half where he’s facing second-unit defenders and knows he can make a few 3s to shift the flow of the game.

“I know JB and KP are usually gonna start off more hot in the first quarter,” Tatum said. “Not that I play decoy — but I just understand to let them do their thing to open up the game for me. I know I can essentially take over when I need to and I just didn’t think like that earlier in my career.”

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If you watch closely, you can see how Tatum holds his dribble when he comes off a screen to scan the floor and read how the defense is covering each layer of the play. Throughout a few possessions, he might tweak where they set the screens or where he dribbles the ball until he has the weak-side help defender just out of position.

Then, when he has that defender compromised, he’ll make the skip pass that sets up the swing pass to the open shooter. Once the defense adjusts to it, he’ll have a driving lane open or a cross-match he can post up for the next few minutes, so he’ll attack it.

“Earlier, I was playing the game just to play the game instead of just thinking it,” Tatum said. “Now, I go out there, and I understand who we’re playing against. I know their scheme, what they’re trying to do, which guys are in or out the lineup.

“Learning from experience, I understand that I’m good enough that I can relax and defer a little bit,” he added. “Then, the fourth quarter comes, and I know I can score 20 in the quarter.”

Now, the Celtics are dominating crunchtime and sit one-tenth of a point behind Dallas for the league’s best clutch net rating, per NBA Stats. Porziņģis has given them the edge late in games to always create a quality look, encouraging Tatum and Brown to defer when they don’t have it going or the defense is blitzing them.

White and Holiday have been lights out when the game matters. White has an 81.6 true shooting percentage and the league’s best net rating in the clutch. It’s all because Tatum and Brown have finally figured out how to prioritize distributing over scoring when it matters.

But, if they don’t do this in the postseason and fail to secure a title, the season will likely be deemed a failure. Giannis Antetokounmpo famously rallied against that notion, but it’s the reality of the expectations for a franchise whose ownership so often refers to banner No. 18.

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“I understand that, no matter what I do in the regular season, I’m at that point where people just judge me off whether I can win a championship,” Tatum said. “I realize that, and it’s like, all right, I just gotta do it.”

Tatum doesn’t want that kind of pressure, but not because it’s too much for him. Last season’s ending was the ultimate lesson of how fickle luck can be at the highest levels of competition.

For so long, you could point to various shortcomings of his to explain why he didn’t win. But now, he’s approaching a level of consistency and dynamism where he has to hope fortune falls his way.

The Celtics blew the Eastern Conference Finals, but somehow pulled off a comeback to erase the disaster and force a seventh game. That Game 7 was a toss-up to begin with, then Tatum landed on Gabe Vincent’s ankle, limped his way through the rest of the night and had to go home without a ring once again. For most stars in their mid-20s, such a run would be considered a triumph. But for Tatum, anything short of a title has come across as underwhelming.

“It’s a little unfair, because everybody don’t get the same treatment,” Tatum said. “I feel like even some guys older than me or the same age as me get looked at differently than I do. Fair or unfair, whatever it is, I think it’s because we’ve had so much early success.”

Tatum knows success will only be measured one way at this point in his career. His time to win is now.

As LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant grow older, there’s an opportunity for him to become the face of the league, but there’s only one way to get there.

“I feel like it’s mine to take,” Tatum said. “I do feel like, if we win a championship, it would be more distinguished and clear. But I understand I’m in that shortlist for sure.”

Life in the NBA has been surreal in many ways for Tatum. Being recognized globally and seeing his face on billboards and gas station snack stands has been a thrill.

“I played basketball for free for so long because I truly love it,” Tatum said. “The money is a plus, and I love being rewarded for what I do.

“I love playing basketball more than anything.”

(Top photo: Elsa/Getty Images)

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Jared Weiss is a staff writer covering the Boston Celtics and NBA for The Athletic. He has covered the Celtics since 2011, co-founding CLNS Media Network while in college before covering the team for SB Nation’s CelticsBlog and USA Today. Before coming to The Athletic, Weiss spent a decade working for the government, primarily as a compliance bank regulator. Follow Jared on Twitter @JaredWeissNBA

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