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Where will Celtics fit Jayson Tatum into rotation?

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum steals the ball from Philadelphia 76ers guard Aaron Harrison (31) during the second half of an NBA summer league basketball game Monday, July 3, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Even though the Boston Celtics traded out of the No. 1 draft spot, they still landed a highly-skilled wing in Jayson Tatum with the No. 3 pick. He’s the youngest player on Brad Stevens’ roster, but he could still become a key part of the rotation.

Duke’s one-and-done prodigy stood out as one of college hoops’ best scorers last season, and his skills immediately transferred to the NBA Summer League. The 6-8 small forward is averaging 18.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 47 percent field goal shooting throughout the Utah and Las Vegas sessions. He has meshed well with Boston’s other young prospects and uncorked footwork and mid-range command beyond his years.

Tatum is not walking into a typical lottery prospect’s situation, though. The Celtics already have a deep rotation and are aiming for another deep playoff run. With veteran shot-creators Isaiah Thomas and Gordon Hayward leading the club, Tatum probably won’t get the reps necessary to contend for Rookie of the Year.

It will be interesting to see how Stevens integrates the teenager into his title-hungry team’s game plan. Tatum won’t have a major role throughout the season, but there are several exciting lineup combinations he could contribute to.

The Firepower Unit

Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Al Horford

This group is mostly composed of starter-caliber players alongside Tatum. It boasts loads of shotmaking talent across the board. In this lineup, Tatum would serve as the small forward and the third shot-creating option on the floor. In most sequences, he’d be a weak-side option who could catch cross-court passes and attack closeouts.

The effectiveness of this group would hinge on Tatum’s 3-point accuracy, passing and most importantly, his defense. He would have to prove his reliability in these areas before Stevens uses the lineup in the postseason. Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report explains that Tatum will have to shift his mindset and energy when playing with these veteran stars.

Though he’s primarily a scorer, Tatum will have to find other areas in which he can contribute. He’ll need to work on his facilitating chops so he can set up his talented teammates, and he’ll have to focus more energy on defense than he ever did while going to work at Duke.

The Small-Ball Unit

Isaiah Thomas (or Terry Rozier), Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jae Crowder (or Jaylen Brown)

Footspeed is the hallmark of this group. With the league’s top teams trending toward more ultra-small-ball lineups, Boston has dynamic answers. The Celtics would put pressure on opponents on both offense and defense. This could be a rangy, interchangeable defensive unit, especially if Rozier and Smart are in the backcourt. Almost everyone on the court could switch against screens and negate most opponents’ preferred actions.

Again, Tatum would be the third scoring option in this group, so he must exercise smarts and fluidity away from the ball. If opponents are using their best defenders against Hayward and Thomas, Tatum might have a favorable matchup.

The Bench Unit

Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Aron Baynes (or Marcus Morris)

While Smart and Morris may spend time in the starting lineup this year, this is basically a reserve unit. It might not be a combination we will see for extended stretches or in the playoffs, but it would showcase Tatum’s scoring chops.

In this lineup, Tatum is the top shot-creating option on the floor. Stevens would use off-ball screens or dribble hand-offs to get Tatum the ball at the pinch post or short corner. If they get him the ball on the move, Tatum could torch opposing teams’ bench units.

This lineup might come in handy on nights when Stevens wants to give his thoroughbreds a breather. If Thomas or Hayward happen to get into foul trouble on the same night, he’ll be glad to at least have a respectable reserve unit in place.

The Hayward Replacement Unit

Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jae Crowder (or Jaylen Brown), Al Horford

We could see this lineup sporadically in the late first or early second quarter, or midway through the third quarter. When Stevens rests Hayward or Thomas to prepare for the home stretch, Tatum could step into a slightly larger role. In this scenario, he’d be the second-best shot-creator and the third or fourth scoring option on the court.

Like the other combinations, Tatum’s usage in this lineup will depend on matchups. He is young but polished enough to capitalize on weaker defenders. He’ll effectively attack wings who don’t move their feet quickly enough or bite on pump fakes.

The Bottom Line

The above lineups are only a few examples of the combinations Stevens could assemble. They offer an idea of the Celtics’ versatility and how Tatum could contribute right away as a secondary scorer.

He has the talent to play with and against starting units, but only if he’s assertive and smart on defense. Tatum will probably spend more time as one of the top shot-creators of the reserve lineup. He’s fortunate that Stevens has a myriad of options. Altogether, Tatum will probably see 18-22 minutes per game and get 6-10 field-goal attempts. That will translate to 8-12 points per game if he shoots 40-45 percent from the field.

That might not seem like an awesome rookie year, but it’s impressive for a 19-year-old on a top-two Eastern Conference team. Tatum will have a modest yet important role while learning alongside Boston’s deep core of talent.

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