25-under-25: Jayson Tatum at No. 2

25-under-25, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum has taken the league by storm in his first three seasons. Now, the Boston Celtics will rely on him even more.

Coming up in basketball, Jayson Tatum was always the headliner of each team he played for. By the time he made it to Duke, it was clear that he would one day make it to the NBA and excel there as well.

However, thanks to one of the most lopsided trades in league history, when Tatum was drafted into the league, he wound up on a team that was looking to contend immediately.

We knew Tatum was talented, but initially, the Boston Celtics were led by Gordon Hayword, Al Horford and Kyrie Irving, — three All-Star caliber players who, similarly to Tatum, were routinely the best players on their youth and high school teams.

Boston was operating on two separate timelines: the present, which was led by the three names mentioned above, and the future, which was spearheaded by Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The plan was to let those five talents work together to try and win championships now and then eventually let Brown and Tatum step into bigger roles down the line.

In year one, things looked great. Boston was clearly among the elite teams in the East, yet by the time the playoffs came around, both Irving and Hayward would eventually succumb to injuries and miss the majority of the team’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The next season was more of the same, but instead of injuries, the Celtics were ultimately undone by emotions and took a step back, losing in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Last year saw another injury to Hayward derail the team’s plans, but they were still able to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

As Andre 3000 once said, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.”

And boy did the weather ever become unpredictable for Danny Ainge and the Celtics. First, Irving left after telling a TD Garden crowd he planned to re-sign in Boston. Then a tumultuous season led Horford to search for greener pastures (A.K.A. guaranteed money), and this summer saw Hayward opt out of a $34 million player option.

Through it all, there has been one constant for the franchise: Tatum.

Does Jayson Tatum have another gear for the Celtics?

As a rookie, he went chest-to-chest (literally, check the film) with prime LeBron James in Game 7 of the conference finals. In the end, the elder James was able to take Cleveland over the top.

In his sophomore year, Tatum continued to grow his skills and his game was considered 1B to Irving’s 1A. However, the pair both underachieved in the postseason, which led to the Celtics’ early exit.

Last season was when Boston became Tatum’s team, and he left no doubts about his meteoric rise. Not only did he earn his first of many All-Star selections, but he was arguably the best player in the entire league for the month of February.

In 12 games, Tatum averaged 30.6 points per game, shot 48.1 percent on nine 3-point attempts per game and posted a usage rate of 31.1 percent.

Though he couldn’t stay that scorching hot for the rest of the year, he still was at an elite level for most of the postseason. He set playoff career-highs and nearly carried the Celtics to the NBA Finals thanks to his 25-10-5 averages as Boston made it to its second Eastern Conference Finals in three seasons since drafting Tatum.

As his numbers have shown, Tatum has all the tools necessary to be a superstar in the NBA. Heck, he might already be one. Not only is Boston paying him like one, but it also gave in to his contractual demands, giving him a player option on the final year of his five-year rookie max extension.

Tatum is one of the few players in the league today that can get a good shot in isolation nine out of 10 times. He has a huge arsenal of one-on-one moves in his repertoire — step-backs, sidesteps, euro-steps, fadeaways, turnarounds, pull-up jumpers and much more. At 6-foot-8 (and likely still growing) with long arms, he doesn’t even need to use a move most times, he can simply just raise up over most opposing defenders.

If Tatum wants to cement his ascension among the game’s greats, he will need to be just as impactful defensively.

The upper echelon of wings in the league today — LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant — all have proven that they are elite two-way players. In order for Tatum to truly belong among the best of the best, he must prove himself as a defender as well.

Even though James and Leonard both reside in California, Tatum will have plenty of opportunities to face off against the best. The reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, remains in the East (for now), Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat are out to prove their bubble run was no fluke, and Durant, returning from injury, is in Tatum’s division.

From here on out — or at least, the next four years — Boston will go as far as Tatum can take them. So far, he’s brought them to two ECFs before reaching the age of 23, and the future looks bright.

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