Tatum’s Top-Notch Defensive Contributions Not to be Overlooked

BOSTON – A handful of Celtics players have been praised for their high-caliber defensive play throughout this season. Aron Baynes and Al Horford have earned credit for protecting the rim, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have been commended for their tenacious on-ball defense, and Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye have been lauded for their versatile skill sets, allowing them to guard virtually any player on the court.

One player whose defense has flown under the radar, however, is Jayson Tatum, who quietly possesses strong abilities in all three of the areas listed above.

The 21-year-old wing was the only Celtics player who finished in the top three in rebounds, steals and blocks. In fact, only one other player on the team (Horford) finished top-three in two of those categories (rebounds and blocks). Yet, there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk surrounding Tatum’s play on that end of the floor.

“You could say that (he’s underrated),” Brown said in agreement with a reporter Wednesday morning before Celtics shootaround. “He’s long, athletic, plays the passing lane well. He’s got long, long arms. Long arms, man. So yeah, you could say that.”

You could certainly say that was the case Sunday afternoon too, as Tatum put together an elite, yet somewhat overlooked, defensive performance against the Indiana Pacers during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

Boston’s young, versatile wing guarded 11 different Pacers players during that outing for a total of 66 possessions. Among those were Indy’s top scoring threats, each of whom were completely shut down by Tatum. In total, he allowed just eight points to be scored against him.

The 6-foot-8 sophomore held eight of those 11 players scoreless, including leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic and leading 3-point shooter Wesley Matthews, whom he defended for 10 possessions and 21 possessions, respectively. He also guarded speedy point guard Darren Collison for 12 possessions while only surrendering two points.

“Jayson’s got a high aptitude,” C’s coach Brad Stevens said. “He knows the right things to do. I thought he was excellent the other day.”

Though, what Tatum accomplished the other day was nothing new; he has been doing this all season long.

Tatum tallied the lowest defensive rating among regular Celtics starters during the 2018-19 campaign with a mark of 104.3. That mark, coupled with his 111.4 offensive rating, produced the highest net rating (7.1) of any player on the team who played at least 15 minutes per game.

Tatum’s teammates have noticed a defensive leap from Year 1 to Year 2 and they believe that he is still only on the cusp of reaching his potential.

“Well, he learned from some of the best, such as myself,” Brown jokingly stated with a smile. “Nah, JT has definitely grown, and we haven’t seen his best. It’s yet to come. We will in the future. JT is going to be everything that everybody imagined him to be. He’s young and he’s going to continue to grow in this league on both sides of the ball.”

Stevens attributes Tatum’s rapid growth so far to the tremendous experience he’s gained during his two years in the NBA. He was thrown to the wolves during his rookie season, having earned a starting spot on a championship contender right off the bat. Rather than buckle under the immense pressure of that role, Tatum seized the moment and played a critical part in leading the team to the Eastern Conference Finals.

“One of the best things about Jayson is with these two years he’s been through an absolute 10-year education,” Stevens said. “He comes into the league and he’s a really high-caliber prospect, but not a lot of real expectations from our team last year. So he comes in, probably out-performs the (expectations from the) outside. Everybody watched him play in the Playoffs (last season), so then he comes in this year and he’s targeted by the NBA – that’s the real deal is you have to perform against your peers – and he’s had another great year.”

What continues to bewilder Stevens is the poise that Tatum displays at such a young age.

“He still younger than 70 percent of the starters in the Final Four,” Stevens said in amazement. “Every possession hasn’t been exactly how he would have scripted, but he’s had an amazing first two years of his career, and defensively he’s had a big impact, especially when he’s locked in low like he was the other day.”

The Celtics will need Tatum to be locked in again Wednesday night during Game 2 at TD Garden, where Indiana will look to even the series at one game apiece.

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