• Matt Esposito

You May Not See It, But Jayson Tatum Is Growing

(photo: Sports Illustrated)

It's okay, I didn't see it at first either. But after some squinting, a couple of eye exams and one updated prescription later, I saw it. Sure, you have to see past the ugly 39.5 percent field goal percentage. When you get by that there is also Jayson Tatum's atrocious 2-point percentage. Eventually, however, you can see it too.

The statistics may not divulge it right away, but Tatum is starting to shift his style of play. Coming into the season analysts and supporters alike called for the combo forward to take less midrange two-pointers and attack the rim more. To prove this, you should be able to look at Tatum's free throw attempts (FTAs) per game. If that number increases then we would have evidence of this evolution.

Interestingly, Tatum is currently taking only 0.6 more FTAs per game when compared to last year's campaign. So, why am I claiming that Tatum has indeed altered his offensive style? Some deeper stats and a film study will shed some light.

At the time of my research and preparation for this piece, Tatum was taking 43.5 percent of his field goals from 0-10 feet. If he stays on this pace it will set a new career high. Between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons Tatum attempted 17.7 percent of his field goals from the 16-3pt range. This season that number has dropped significantly to 9.2 percent. Even better still, he leads his team at field goal attempts per game within five feet.

Additionally, Tatum is on pace for 44 And-1 attempts this year. He has 20 of these attempts in each of his first two seasons. This demonstrates the third year pro's increased willingness to drive the lane. Yet, this exchange of midrange twos for shots within 10 feet has not come without struggle. Nothing suggests this more than his pace of 74 blocked shots for the year; a number which would surpass his previous high by 14 blocks.

So, Tatum seems to be getting into the paint more often. But why hasn't this resulted in more FTAs? Why isn't his 2-point percentage rising? After all, taking more shots near the basket should result in a higher percentage on 2-pointers. Furthermore, we must ascertain the cause of Tatum's rising amount of shots that are blocked. Is he getting rejected because of his higher frequency of shots in the paint? Or is something awry with his approach.

Don't worry. I may have the answers to that onslaught of questions. No game revealed Tatum's specific area of concern more than the contest versus Golden State. At times his new driving mentality was evident. Tatum attempted seven free throws that game and sank six of them. There were times, however, when he would shy away from the hoop or fail to finish through or around contact.

Consider this play in the pivotal fourth quarter. Marcus Smart drives the lane and draws in the defense. The ball finds its way to Tatum on the perimeter. One pump-fake later and Tatum is dribbling towards the bucket. The helping Omari Spellman - a 6-foot-8, 253 pound man - rotates over to protect the paint. It forces Tatum into a rushed jumper from around 10-12 feet out. It clanks.

Would Tatum have taken a pounding from Spellman? Probably. Would have drawn a foul against a large albeit less agile player? Probably. People tend to forget that Tatum has played just over two professional seasons and turned 21 last March. The man is young with a body that is still in need of more muscle. It is understandable why he chose to pull up for the jumper. Regardless, this should change over time as Tatum's body matures.

Perhaps Tatum can outgrow this one particular issue. Another issue, however, will take some reps in the gym to outgrow. Throughout this game one fact became apparent. Jayson Tatum struggles mightily going to his left. In fact, this next video hints at both this and his propensity to shy away from contact.

Here, Tatum drives left and does so with intensity. He has a step on his defender and attempts a left-handed layup. It seems as though Tatum is anticipating some contact from Willie Cauley-Stein. He was right to assume this as WCS shoves Tatum after the shot goes up. The ball rims out and Tatum is visibly frustrated.

On the very next possession Tatum misses once more going to his left. Watch carefully. He used a nifty inside-out dribble to get the step on his defender. Again, WCS rotates over to protect the rim. This forces Tatum to go up with his right hand, which most hoopers know is the incorrect approach to this type of shot. In real-time we get to witness how the possibility of contact can impact a player. Neat!

Celtics fans should be encouraged, though. Tatum simply needs reps. For instance, consider this crafty move against WCS earlier in the same game. A nice dribble approach coupled with a shot-fake and Tatum has his man beat. Unfortunately, you can sense the frustration as Tatum misses a bunny.

Going to his right, however, is a much different story for the forward. He looks much more relaxed with his finishes, whether they be through contact or in an attempt to avoid it. Below is an example of him driving towards his right any simply disregarding Kristaps Porzingis on his way to a trip to the line.

Next, watch Tatum eurostep between two Wizards defenders while drawing the foul before calmly flipping the ball into the hoop. This is what Cs faithful should be excited about. This score comes off of a pick and roll, to boot.

So, what are we left with. Expecting Tatum to alter his game towards a more attacking style was acceptable. Expecting him to succeed in the same year may have been too lofty of a goal. Ask Jaylen Brown. It has taken Brown just over three years to finally become a solid at-rim player offensively. Be patient with Tatum. It will be worth it.

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