A few hours before he impersonated prime Paul Pierce by sucking all the oxygen out of Madison Square Garden with soul-shredding offensive combustion, the best 20-year-old basketball player in the world huddles inside his locker with a plate full of mouthwatering Italian fuel. Beneath a giant slice of garlic bread, generous spoonfuls of rigatoni border a few pink chunks of salmon oreganata. Jayson Tatum picks at his food, wearing short shorts that expose a pair of relatively new upper-thigh tattoos.
He’s taciturn, with hushed caution underlying every response. But, whether he enjoys the attention or still needs time to let it grow on him, Tatum's game demands it. By the end of the night, after he guides the Celtics to victory by scoring all six of their final points with less than a minute to go, it's hard not to think that even the most optimistic projections may have short-changed his developmental curve.
We’re one week into his second season, and Tatum is already one of the most relevant and essential characters the NBA has. Last year's near-unprecedented playoff run, in which he dissected opponents with a reservoir of step backs, side-step threes, and furiously technical footwork that made defending him in space feel like one of the more fruitless duties in basketball, helped bring us here. And now, after four games, he leads the Celtics in points—he has four more than Kyrie Irving (on nine fewer shots)—rebounds, free throws, and minutes. But in late October the impressive-albeit-relatively-unreliable statistics he’s amassed carry less weight than how he looks tallying them.
I ask Tatum about a particular sequence from Boston's second game against the Toronto Raptors, when he appeared to course-correct in real time. His initial mistake came just a few minutes in, when Kawhi Leonard dropped a pocket pass to Serge Ibaka for an easy layup that should never have happened.
With Pascal Siakam—a non-threat from the outside—as his man, Tatum needed to impede Ibaka’s roll sooner than he did. “I knew I messed up when it happened,” he told VICE Sports. “So, nothing needed to be said. I should’ve been over there. I didn’t help. When it happened again, I was in the right place, right time.”
With just under five minutes to go in the second quarter, Tatum quickly realizes he's in a similar situation and drifts into the paint before Kyle Lowry can even think about threading the needle to a rolling Ibaka. Tatum ignores Siakam, who Irving picks up on a switch, and it's exactly what the Celtics want. Given where Siakam (who doesn’t play big) is on the floor—20 feet away from the rim, at the top of the key—there’s really no mismatch for Boston’s defense to worry about. Irving steals the ball.
“Once you make the mistake, you try not to let it happen again,” Tatum says. “Especially in the same game.”
Tatum is still prone to those defensive mistakes—be it with a late rotation along the back line, bungling a switch, getting beat backdoor, failing to box out, or over-helping off/fouling a quality jump shooter—but none of them can be attributed to poor effort. As someone who's responsible for a diverse collection of skill-sets and positions, from a possession-to-possession basis, the need to process information is constant. His wingspan and general awareness help make the learning process a bit more smooth than it'd otherwise be, though; physically, his on-ball progress is already evident in spurts.
“I think one of his key areas of emphasis has been core strength, so that he can play lower longer. Especially with the way the game is being called now, so you can’t wrap people and hold onto people, you’ve gotta be able to play low, you’ve gotta be able to play in a stance, so I think that’s the number one [area of growth],” Brad Stevens said before Tatum’s 24-point, 14-rebound performance against the Knicks. “You know, he’s always been a guy that can put the ball in the hoop and do a lot of positive things for your team, but he can get a lot better in a lot of areas and I think it all centers around that core strength.”
When you watch Tatum do things people his age don’t ever really do (that is, assume first-option responsibilities on a championship contender), it’s easy to overlook his development, how each day is a step towards some untold ceiling decorated with scoring titles, MVP consideration, and prestige as the most dangerous, fluid, and unruffled bucket-getter in the world. (Instead of Kyrie, Gordon Hayward, or even Al Horford, the Raptors stuck Kawhi on Tatum in crunch time on Friday night. That speaks volumes.) His isolations are way up in volume from last year—according to Synergy Sports, only eight players in the entire league have isolated more, so far—and his overall role is maturing from supplement to linchpin, with the second-highest usage rate on the team.
Even though he's missed 14 of his 19 three-point attempts this season—he shot 43.4 percent as a rookie—Tatum's individual potency refuses to lie dormant. He exists in two states: slow boil and merciless eruption, and is so comfortable in the mid-range, with a confidence that reinforces itself every time he drills a baseline fadeaway from behind the backboard, or uses the intuition of a warhorse to casually draw fouls 18 feet from the basket. Tatum's shot selection is imperfect but necessary: There's no time like the present to let him explore all the dimensions of an offensive repertoire that foreshadows some kind of basketball doomsday. He's unhurried in the post, curling off a screen, in-and-out dribbling his way into a pull-up dart, or Euro-step-finishing at the rim. Everything he does looks so damn easy.
There are dozens of examples from the past four games alone, but just look how calm he is creating and then sustaining separation against arguably the most athletic wing defender in the entire league, as the clock nears zero. He doesn't rush.
There's more to offense than scoring, though, and for Tatum to reach his own summit he'll need to read defensive coverages and combine authoritative vision with unselfish decisions. He hasn't been asked to make plays for others in Stevens's offense, but that day, along with inevitable double and triple teams, will eventually come. Throughout his rookie regular season, Tatum did not complete a single lob pass as the ball-handler to a rolling big. But here he is on Monday night, setting Daniel Theis up with a perfect pass as the lone starter in a bench unit. Plays like this—where he takes his time, gets Terrence Ross on his backside, and baits Mo Bamba into no man's land—show how the game is slowing down for him.
Back inside Madison Square Garden's visitor's locker room, Tatum looks down at his plate. “I’m a lot more comfortable and relaxed than I was last year,” he says. “I know what to expect.” Now, when they square off against a Celtics team that already has so many different weapons ready to go off at any time, so too must every other team in the NBA. Tatum's growing pains won't last forever.