The 2020-21 NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful offseason we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
Statistics are often bent to manufacture the story of a rising star’s ascension into greatness, but in Jayson Tatum’s case, however you bend his statistics, they tell the story of a rising star’s ascension into greatness.
So much so that it would come as a surprise if Tatum does not enter the MVP conversation this season.
Every benchmark the 22-year-old hits, he joins only legends. Tatum is the youngest to average 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in the playoffs, leading his Boston Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals. Only Larry Bird and LeBron James had previously averaged a 25-10-5 beyond the second round at any age.
Strip away the rebounds, and Michael Jordan joins James and Tatum as the only players to average 25 points and five assists in the playoffs during their age-21 seasons or younger. Jordan did it in a first-round exit. James did it in a second-round exit. Tatum did it through three rounds, coming within a miracle Bam Adebayo block and a 37-point explosion from Tyler Herro of carrying those numbers into the NBA Finals.
Tatum did not just put up numbers. He carried the weight of legitimate championship contention.
After hitting those marks so early in their careers, James and Jordan never finished outside the top five in MVP voting again when healthy during the primes of their careers, sharing nine trophies and 21 top-three finishes between them — and counting. Tatum has shaped his career trajectory to this same precipice.
Forget James and Jordan, because conversations including those two get carried away, and focus on Kevin Durant. Apropos, since Celtics coach Brad Stevens revealed this week that Tatum has grown two inches to 6-foot-10, roughly the same height and slender frame as Durant. The similarities extend to their offensive prowess, the ability at that height to rise over anyone and score with efficiency from anywhere on the floor.
Durant won the first of his four scoring titles in five seasons at age 21. He was putting up 20 shots a night for a fledgling Oklahoma City Thunder team making its first playoff appearance since moving from Seattle. In a first-round exit, Durant joined the short list of young players to average 25 or more points per game in the playoffs, a list of eight that includes four MVPs, Tracy McGrady, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic and Tatum.
Durant finished in the MVP voting’s top five that year for the first of six times with OKC. Over those six seasons, he averaged 29 points (49/38/88 shooting splits on 19.5 attempts per game), 7.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 38.5 minutes a night. During his MVP campaign at the age of 23 in 2011-12, Durant posted a 28-8-4 on 50/39/86 splits for a Thunder team that won 71 percent of its games in a shortened season.
All of this seems plausible for Tatum, even if he has taken a more gradual route to superstardom since joining the reigning conference finalist Celtics as a rookie. While Durant was getting his early career reps with no fewer than 17 shots per game on a lottery team, Tatum was getting no more than 13 shots a night for a contender. Tatum used as many of his team’s possessions last season as Durant did as a rookie.
That will change this season, with one-time All-Star wing Gordon Hayward leaving in free agency and All-Star point guard Kemba Walker entering this season on the injury shelf. The Celtics are Tatum’s team now, and there are no excuses for him not to use north of 30% of their possessions and attempt 20-plus shots per game. As an offensive weapon with the size of a five and every move in his arsenal, what Tatum does with those possessions and shots will determine where on the Durant scale of uber-efficiency he falls.
At worst, Durant logged a true shooting percentage of 58.9 from ages 21-27. That number crept above 60% and closer to 64% as he laid claim to his status as the league’s second-best player behind James. Tatum’s true shooting settled at 56.7% last season. What separates Durant was his work at the free-throw line, where he got to the line 9.2 times a game and converted 88.6% of them during his run of scoring titles.
Tatum averaged 4.7 free throws on the season in 2019-20, but he transformed at the time of his first All-Star selection. From the start of February until the mid-March hiatus, he averaged 29.2 points a night, thanks in part to an uptick in free-throw attempts. By the playoffs, he was getting to the line more than seven times a game and sinking 81.3% of them. That frequency should climb along with his increased usage and respect.
However you process the numbers, it feels inevitable that Tatum will submit a statistical season in line with peak OKC Durant sooner rather than later, and that is to say nothing of his All-Defensive ability. If Tatum hits that benchmark on a young Celtics team that seizes a No. 2 playoff seed in a shortened season, as Durant’s Thunder did in 2012, there is reason to believe Tatum may not just enter the MVP conversation, but own it.
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