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2017-18 NBA Rookie Preview | Celtics forward Jayson Tatum

Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum looks on during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Celtics won 110-102. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
AP Photo/Chris Szagola

This past offseason, the Boston Celtics had their cake and ate it, too. President Danny Ainge upgraded the club’s star power via trade, and the Shamrocks also picked up a blue-chip draft prospect with an early lottery pick.

After trading out of the No. 1 spot, Boston still got a highly talented youngster: Duke’s Jayson Tatum at No. 3. The 6-8 small forward shined against ACC competition for the Blue Devils last year, and he backed it up with a strong summer league for the Celtics. Tatum owns an uncommonly robust shot-creating repertoire for a one-and-done swingman.

During preseason play, we’ve seen more glimpses of Tatum’s talent. He clearly has the moves and moxie to become a prolific NBA weapon. However, he’s currently on a deep Boston squad that won’t feature him every night. Tatum must learn how to play within Brad Stevens’ system and collaborate with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

What kind of impact should we expect from him in Year 1? How will he fit in the Celtics’ rotation, and what kind of production will he bring to their NBA title pursuit?

Offensive expectations

Tatum has started in three of Boston’s four preseason tilts, but there’s a good chance he’ll come off the bench once the Celtics are at full strength in the regular season. Hayward and Jaylen Brown are already established NBA wings, so he’ll have to earn minutes behind them. Tatum could potentially spend time as a small-ball 4, but he’ll predominantly play the 3. I’d expect him to play 20-24 minutes per game.

More often than not, Tatum will be the third or fourth scoring option when he enters the game. Proven studs Hayward, Irving, Al Horford and Marcus Morris will command more touches than him. Fortunately, Stevens’ offense incorporates a bunch of ball and player movement, so Tatum will still get the rock frequently.

Tatum’s most impressive NBA-ready skill is his mid-range footwork, facilitating an effective turnaround jumper. He already has a better fadeaway shooting touch than 95 percent of the league. After bombarding summer league opponents with mid-range buckets, he uncorked a few in preseason as well:

 

While it’s one of his strongest assets, Tatum shouldn’t rely heavily on isolation mid-range shots. It’s good to have that skill in his pocket when he needs it or encounters a size mismatch.

Tatum will space the floor decently, albeit unspectacularly, from 3-point range. He shot 34 percent from the college arc at Duke, and he’s 33 percent from the NBA line in both summer league and preseason play. Tatum will likely finish between 30 and 33 percent from distance in 2017-18, which is just good enough to provide spacing for his star comrades.

Fortunately, his jump-shot pump fakes are convincing, and he often gets defenders to leave their feet. Then Tatum capitalizes on the daylight and attacks the rim. His handles, footwork and length carve out paths to the basket as well as playmaking opportunities.

Tatum has enjoyed a handful of efficient forays to the hoop during preseason action. He has made driving layups, drive-and-dish plays, and drawn fouls. For the most part, he has done a good job keeping his head up and making the most sound play available.

In just four preseason games, Tatum delivered an eye-popping preview of his off-the-bounce versatility:

 

Tatum is known more as an isolation scorer, but he’ll operate off the ball quite a bit this season. He’s more familiar with being the No. 1 option and having the ball most of the time, so playing on the weak side might be a tricky adjustment for him.

The good news is that he looked fluid in sporadic off-ball situations at Duke and in summer league/preseason. Tatum has a sharp basketball IQ and a great natural feel for the game, so he knows how to move without the ball. He knows when to pop to the 3-point line and when to cut to the rim.

If Tatum plays 20-24 minutes per game, he’ll probably get seven or eight field goal attempts and flirt with double-digit scoring. His final regular season numbers could look something like this: 22 MPG, 7.6 FGA, 9.9 PPG, 43% FG, 32% 3FG.

Defensive outlook

It will be more difficult for Tatum to adjust to the nightly challenges on the defensive end. The scoring wunderkind isn’t as naturally gifted on defense, and his rookie year may be filled with more growing pains than successes.

Tatum isn’t a complete slouch in isolation defense; he moves well when he stays in a stance. However, he’ll struggle if he switches onto speedy or shifty guards. Opponents will wisely set lots of screens against him; navigating past screens is one of his biggest weaknesses, and he hasn’t displayed diligent footwork or effort to fight through them.

From what we’ve seen over the summer and in preseason action, Tatum’s best defensive spot for Boston will be at the 3. While he may spend time as a small-ball 4, he’s too slender to tangle with many of the NBA’s power forwards.

Greg Cassoli of CelticsBlog discussed some of Tatum’s least and most favorable preseason matchups:

The results have been mixed. In Boston’s preseason opener, Tatum struggled to fill the (4) role effectively. Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky punished him on the block on consecutive possessions… In both preseason games against the 76ers, he was tasked with covering wings…Tatum has looked much more at ease guarding and attacking smaller players. It keeps opponents from taking advantage of his skinny build…

While Tatum still has miles of room for improvement in fundamentals and strength, he could still affect games with active hands. He snagged a few steals against the Hornets and Sixers last week, including this heads-up interception against Frank Kaminsky:

 

Tatum’s lack of defensive versatility may prevent him from getting huge minutes, especially in the postseason, but he has the tools to be respectable on that end, even in Year 1. He needs to apply himself more than he ever has and focus on the details. Tatum’s alertness and effort on defense throughout the regular season could determine whether he gets 25-30 minutes per game in the playoffs … or 15.

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