Jayson Tatum Must Take More Free Throws, But How Much More?
Ah, this old refrain.
By now, Boston Celtics fans are used to hearing this line. Everyone from Bill Simmons to the guy selling knock off tees on Friend Street has claimed that Jayson Tatum must get to the stripe more. It is a rare day when casual fandom and hoops intellect collide, but both Simmons and Mr. Comeonbuyyourgirlanewshirt are correct.
The evidence is abundant but the narrative is twisted. Many believe that mid-range jumpers must be brought to the ceremonial altar and ruthlessly sacrificed under the watch of our Basketball Gods. Once so, a new life will emerge and take the form of free-throw attempts. Consider me a skeptic.
We all know that Tatum went to the Kobe School of 17-footers. Additionally, we all know that Tatum struggled in the mid-range last season, despite noxiously taking shots from that area all year long. But the mid-range still has a place in today's game. Many of the best closers in the league have the ability to stall defenders and simply rise over them once they are either asleep or off-balance. Asking Tatum to abandon this developing skill: Kyrie-woke. Asking Tatum to complement this skill with more trips to the line: Jaylen-woke.
The career of Carmelo Anthony could be the best evidence for this strategy. A quick look will tell you that Melo actually spent the vast majority of his years shooting either right at or slightly below the league average for both field goal and 3-point percentage. Yet, he continued to take many iso jumpers from the midrange. Typically, this sounds like a recipe for an NBA inefficiency so putrid it makes Kevin Pelton wake up from the middle of a deep sleep sweaty and panting.
What statistically saved Melo? Free throws. He consistently finished near the top of the NBA in free-throw attempts per game, averaging 7.7 attempts from ages 21-30. When Anthony went bust in both Oklahoma City and Houston he saw his attempts shrink from 2.5 to 2.2 per game, respectively. Coincidence? No. The lesson, however, is that a hooper can mix in a healthy dose of isolation, midrange basketball only if they concurrently get to the line often.
So, how many free-throw attempts per game should Tatum be aiming for? I looked back at the numbers from last year. Obviously, James Harden led the league with 858 attempts throughout the seasons. Giannis finished a distant second with 686 total attempts. We can scratch out these types of numbers for Tatum.
Paul George finished 5th in total attempts last year with 540. This averaged out to 7.0 per game and seems a little steep. Although I sometimes like to compare PG13's ceiling, career arc, skill-set and athleticism to my personal projections for Tatum, 7.0 attempts per game would be a lofty jump for someone who took only 2.9 attempts per game last season.
I continued moving down the list to find a decent comparison. Kawhi Leonard also took around 7.0 attempts per game but Leonard is a poor comparison for Tatum. After all, even the staunchest of Tatum supporters would have to agree that he is unlikely to ever reach Kawhi's remarkable shooting numbers. Cross him off the list.
DeMar Derozan used to live at the line during his younger days in Toronto (or "Tronno" for our Canadian readers.) He also is known for his mid-range game. Yet, DeRozan cannot space the floor like Tatum. So, I moved on to Mr. James Butler. The new Heat star has a different frame than Tatum but, the two could end up being more similar than what people realize.
Butler can do damage with the ball, especially in the mid-range. Tatum seems to be prioritizing this as a major part of his game. Celtics beat reporters have let slip that Tatum is expected to grow as a facilitator next season; another projected similarity to Butler. They both like the spotlight and we have even seen Tatum play exceptional defense at points, too.
Butler, however, put an emphasis on getting to the line as he has averaged 6.9 attempts per game over the last seven seasons. He did not get there overnight, though. In consecutive seasons Butler went from 2.8 attempts per game to 5.0 before hitting the analytic sweet spot of 7.1 per game. Although his numbers have dropped a bit in his two most recent seasons, Butler was a mainstay in the 7.0-8.0 range for a good stretch.
Tatum should mimic this ascent. Does he need to average 7.0 attempts per game next year? Of course not. A bump up to between 4.5 or 5.0 would be a promising trend. The early reports are that Tatum has been more aggressive during his Team USA tenure. Hopefully, this attitude carries over to the regular season, because the list of players who have averaged 45 percent from the floor, 38 percent from beyond the arc (on at least 4 attempts per game) and 5.0 free throw attempts per game is historic.
You can check out that list here. Or, you can keep reading and find out that the first few names on that list end with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Tracy McGrady and Dirk Nowitzki. Tatum has essentially checked all of those boxes so far, with the free throw numbers being the lone exception. 5.0 free throw attempts per game is all we are asking Mr. Tatum. Please oblige.