Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had just beaten an NBA team practically by themselves. It was the Knicks, but still — a 19- and 21-year-old torched an opponent four games into the season, and the sense that this was the start of something special permeated the Celtics locker room afterwards.
As reporters hoarded around the back-to-back No. 3 picks, I asked Celtics media relations if they remembered the last time the team featured two guys who represented this much possibility at once. They cycled through Dee Brown and Brian Shaw, two late first-round picks, before we agreed on the obvious and forbidden comparison: Larry Bird and Kevin McHale.
The Celtics are quick to remind you that Bird turned a 29-win team into a 61-win outfit as a rookie, and they won the 1981 NBA championship when McHale began his career the following year. Tatum and Brown aren’t Bird and McHale in legend or style, but they’re also four years younger than those future Hall of Famers were upon entering the association, and when you ask them or those closest to them about their potential, such preposterous projections don’t sound so outlandish anymore.
“I think Jayson could be one of the best of all-time,” said Chaminade College Prep head coach Frank Bennett, who served as an assistant before taking over the program at the St. Louis-based high school in Tatum’s sophomore year. “As crazy as that sounds now, if he stays healthy and stays the course with what he’s going to do this year, you extrapolate that across a healthy career spanning 15-some-odd years in the right situations, he’s going to win himself a championship and be a perennial All-Star. I truly believe that with everything in me.”
That may sound like smoke-blowing from a coach brimming with pride now that Tatum is a Rookie of the Year frontrunner, but then you remember Bennett played with future NBA All-Star and champion David Lee at Chaminade and coached current Wizards star Bradley Beal at the school. Tatum didn’t just fall in Chaminade’s lap. This is a school that churns out elite talent, and Tatum’s prep team alone featured a handful of Division I recruits. So, you begin to realize that, yeah, maybe they know what they’re talking about when they say this kid is something else.
I asked if Tatum thought his high school coach was writing checks he can’t cash, and the rook didn’t hesitate. “I think I can be great,” he said. “It’s something I’ve always strived for, even when I was in high school. That’s why I play, to try to be one of the best. Every kid has a dream, but you’ve got to take it one step at a time when you’re in the process.”
A number of common threads run through the fabric of Tatum and Brown. This belief is one of them, and Desmond Eastmond, Brown’s AAU coach, trainer and mentor, is quick to let you know.
“He could arguably be one of the best players to play,” said Eastmond. “He’ll definitely be in the history books with the Celtics, but he can arguably be one of the best players to play the game, because he has every tool needed to be great. He can handle the ball, he can shoot, score at three levels, he’s athletic, he defends, he’s young, he’s coachable.
“He has all of the tools.”
Two games after they torched the Knicks, Tatum scored 20 points on nine shots in a win over the Heat. Two games after that, Brown dropped 22 on eight shots in a victory against the Kings. They are starting for a Celtics team that owns the league’s best record, longest winning streak and top defense. The future is starting to sound less and less like hyperbole.
“I tell J.T. that all the time,” said Brown of his new partner in time, “they can’t stop us both.”
Tatum’s relationship with Beal began before they were even born. “Brad’s mom coached my mom in volleyball,” said Tatum. “I’ve known Brad almost my entire life, and he’s always been like a big brother and looked after me as I was growing up, even before I got to high school.”
Beal graduated from Chaminade as the school’s most decorated player in 2011. His resume included a state championship and the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year honor. Tatum was in seventh grade at the time, and he wanted it all, so he studied Beal’s playbook.
“Jayson was in middle school when Brad received the Gatorade Player of the Year award, so Brad has always been an unbelievable mentor for Jayson in all regards — how to prepare for the game, how to work hard, how to transcend other people who are also the best of the best in the country,” said Bennett, “but also how to conduct yourself on an everyday basis in a high-character manner, and then excel academically.
“All that stuff was what made Brad so special, and then when you circle that around to Jayson, he had a chance to learn from him, and as a result they’re still very close today. That’s really cool. Brad had a very big influence on Jayson as his role model and somebody he could look up to to see how they appropriately do things.”
Every waking hour he wasn’t in school, Tatum worked on his craft. He went to the gym at 6 a.m. before school, practiced in the afternoon and then worked out in the evening. His come to Basketball Jesus awakening was as a freshman when he put a triple-double on Golden State Warriors guard Patrick McCaw, then a junior at St. Louis rival Christian Brothers College High. Around the time Beal was finishing up his rookie season after being selected third overall in the 2012 draft, a 15-year-old Tatum was starting to believe his own NBA dream could be reality.
“Just after my freshman year, I saw how well I played on varsity and how I could could hold my own against guys four years older than me and stronger than me,” said Tatum, now doing the same in the NBA. “I was one of the best players. I knew I had a long way to go, because just watching Brad in high school, he was incredible. I knew I had a chance to go to the NBA after my sophomore year. That’s when I felt like I could accomplish some of the things that Brad did.”
Tatum was already the state’s player of the year as a sophomore. Between seasons, Beal was home in St. Louis, working to be the running mate John Wall needed to make Washington a contender, so he would pick Tatum up on summer mornings, and they would chase the dream together.
“It’s like big brother, little brother,” said Corey Tate, who coached Tatum in the St. Louis Eagles AAU program and now serves as an assistant on the St. Louis University staff. “Brad had the opportunity to go to the NBA and share those experiences with him. Obviously, he was listening and took everything in. It’s just a great opportunity to have a big brother, so to speak, that’s a little bit ahead of you that went to the NBA. He saw Brad’s work habits. Brad would wake up and go work out and go pick him up. Those are things that got him ready for this opportunity.”
Tatum graduated every bit Beal’s equal in 2016, winning a state title and adding his own Gatorade National Player of the Year award to Chaminade’s trophy case. A year later, he too was drafted third overall. So, when Tatum dropped 14 and 10 with three assists opposite LeBron James in his NBA debut, those who had a front-row seat to his development weren’t surprised, because Tatum already had all the answers to the test.
“He always was special,” said Tate. “It was just more of how special do you want to become? Stevie Wonder could see he was going to be an NBA player. It was just a matter of, when the time comes, be ready, and I think as we see right now he put himself in position to be ready.”
“Not surprised at all,” said Bennett. “I don’t know mean that in an arrogant sense. He is the hardest-working basketball player I’ve ever seen in my life, and then on top of that he’s ultra-competitive and just so skilled. Parallel that with a high basketball IQ, and you just see he’s built for the NBA. So, when he’s doing what he’s done so far, I’m really not shocked.”
“Honestly, he doesn’t have a ceiling,” added Tate. “The kid was just born to play basketball. He’s just writing his script right now, so it’s a long ways. We have no idea how good this kid can be, because just seeing him at a young age, he was doing things people were getting paid to do.
“He’s just prepared. He just knows that’s his job. He knew that was going to be his job when he was younger. He’s basically been around the NBA game all of his life, so it’s no surprise.”
I spoke to Brown’s high school coach for roughly 15 minutes, and he must have mentioned his former player’s work ethic several dozen times. That’s what separated every one of the NBA players who came through Douglas Lipscomb’s Marietta (Ga.) Wheeler High program. Brown was no different and exceptional all the same. So, where does that drive come from?
“I got it from my mom, just being a single mom, working her butt off to raise two kids,” said Brown. “Sometimes she had to work two jobs, sometimes she had to work three jobs, but she never complained, and she never let us know if she was struggling or not. But we could see it, and I think that’s where it started.”
It continued with Eastmond, Brown’s AAU coach with Game Elite since the age of 12. Brown made a pledge he would hit the gym every day before school, and Eastmond held him to it.
“He made a commitment every day to get up and work,” said Eastmond. “Sometimes it was 6 o’clock in the morning. A lot of times he didn’t want to do it, but we made a commitment, and it got to the point where, it’s not if you want to do it, but how it was going to get done.”
So, by the time Brown arrived on the Wheeler campus, he too was prepared beyond his years.
“When he was going into his ninth-grade season, we knew he had a very good upside as far as athleticism and skill-set,” said Lipscomb. “He also has a good work ethic, so that was extremely important, and he listened, so with a kid like that, if they’re doing all the above, sky’s the limit.”
Brown was a rising star in Georgia when he broke his leg as a high school sophomore, but if you think that injury slowed the progress of a kid who was already being groomed for the NBA, think again.
“He couldn’t work out on the court, and it tore him apart,” said Eastmond, “so he took that time to get in the weight room and work on his upper body. And his body just changed dramatically. Over that six-month period, once he got stronger with his upper body, at the start of his junior season, that’s when he just turned a corner. When he came back, he would make his move, and they were bouncing off of him, and that’s when things just came together for him.”
By the time he was a senior, Brown was considered one of the top recruits in the Class of 2015, behind Montverde (Fla.) Academy’s Ben Simmons. The two met head-to-head in the title game of the annual City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., and Brown took the matchup personally.
“He took that upon himself,” said Eastmond. “He’s always challenged. He’s always been the underdog — something to strive for — and that was good, because that was fuel for his fire. Going into the City of Palms, Jaylen was asked to play every position. He was asked to rebound, defend centers, defend forwards, defend guards, asked to do everything, but going into the season he knew that’s what was expected of him. If you want to win, if you want to be great, if you want to take us where you say you want to take us, then go ahead and do it.
“The City of Palms was easy to coach. All you had to do was put on the chalkboard before the game was, ‘Ben Simmons, arguably the No. 1 player in the country, arguably the No. 1 amateur prospect in the country, and the whole world is watching.’ And that was it,” he added. “Now go out and prove everything you say you can do, and have your teammates believe in you.”
Brown dropped 25 and 12 with six assists, capturing MVP honors and handing Simmons his only loss on Montverde’s way to a third straight national title. “Very impressive,” said Lipscomb. “I’m sure they guarded each other throughout the game. I don’t know how many games Ben Simmons lost while he was in high school, but I don’t think he lost many.”
That’s why, when Brown collected 19 points, five rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block opposite LeBron in his first career NBA start, five games into his rookie season on a team that would reach the Eastern Conference finals, those who know him best also weren’t shocked.
“I expected it because of who he is,” said Eastmond. “People don’t understand. He’s wise beyond his years. He’s been mature for a long time. He’s been groomed for this. Sometimes you actually get disappointed, because you want more, you expect more, because he wants to be great, and knowing him, if that’s what he wants, he’s going to get it by any means necessary. I’m just trying to figure out when he will turn the corner to be that superstar that he knows he is.”
Brown isn’t the same player he was at Wheeler or Cal or as a rookie. “I just got better from last year,” he said. There’s that work ethic again. He calls his 10-15 minutes a night last season a blessing. He took it to heart when Celtics coach Brad Stevens preached consistency as the hallmark of greatness, and the game has started to slow down for him this season. “You see things you didn’t see last year,” he said, “making reads, making plays, being stronger, more physical, things like that.”
Tatum still talks to Beal “every few days,” and he feels lucky to have someone in Brown who was in his shoes a year ago. “He helps me out a lot,” said Tatum, who along with Brown began this season as a starter. “I just had a lot of questions. How was his first game? Who’d he guard? How was the rotation? What did he struggle with at first? It makes the transition a lot easier.”
Both Brown and Tatum were thrust into the spotlight after Gordon Hayward’s injury. If the Celtics are to return to the conference finals and have any hope of unseating the Cavaliers now, they will need both of them to play beyond their years, something they’ve both been groomed to do.
Through eight games, a tenth of the season, they’ve passed another test with flying colors, averaging a combined 30.1 points on a ridiculous 59.8 true shooting percentage and 12.5 rebounds per game. They’ve played 151 NBA minutes together, and the Celtics are outscoring opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor — a mark even the best NBA lineups would take, with a 6-2 record to show for it. And they’re just getting started. “We’re going to keep getting better and more comfortable with each other as time goes on, said Tatum.”
Brown’s power hustle and Tatum’s smooth flow have injected youth and athleticism into the Celtics lineup that they haven’t seen in years, maybe decades. Their length — a combined 14 feet of wingspan — wreaks havoc on passing lanes and shooting aims, and it creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses on the other end. They embody so much possibility, and yet they’re playing at ages 19 and 21 like they belonged all along.
“We’re kind of similar in a way and also different,” said Tatum. “He’s very aggressive, and he’s so athletic and strong, and there’s not too many people who can stand in front of him, so he draws a lot of attention. He finds the open man. He’s exciting to watch out there.”
Brown returns the favor to his fellow ace in the hole, only he ups the ante.
“I think he’s ahead,” Brown said of Tatum. “I definitely think Jayson’s ahead of where I was last season offensively. Defensively we’re probably the same, but I think offensively he’s ahead. He has more of an opportunity, of course, but I think he’s ahead. His talent level, everybody can see how he exceeds, and he has the same type of work ethic I do. The sky’s the limit for him.”
The comparisons come fast and easy with Tatum and Brown, and they won’t stop, because this is only the beginning for these two, and they’re quickly realizing all that potential right before our eyes.
“Jayson approached the game like LeBron when he was younger. As he got older, things have changed now,” said Tate of Tatum, positionless and all positions at once. “He has a lot of resemblance to Penny Hardaway, too. He’s like a tailor-made Penny Hardaway. He can pass just like Penny. He’s the same build. You look at their highlights, and they’re so much alike.”
Added Bennett of Tatum: “His favorite player is Kobe, no questions asked, so when you look at him in the mid-post, especially, that’s who he tries to emulate his game after.” And Tatum isn’t just polishing those moves, either. He embraces the Mamba Mentality. “He tries to absorb Kobe.”
C’mon, now. These are wild connections with perennial All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, right? Except, they don’t sound so wild when you sit down with them and listen to what they have in store for the league.
“I think a lot of it is just up to me,” said Brown. “How bad do you really want it? Everybody wants to be Kobe Bryant, but nobody wants to wake up at 4 a.m., so how bad do you really want it?”
“He’s definitely going to work hard to get better,” said Lipscomb, who retired this past spring after 25 seasons, six state titles and a handful of NBA products, spanning Shareef Abdur-Rahim to Brown. “Work ethic is never going to be a question as far as Jaylen is concerned. I don’t ever see that being a problem. He’s a highly intelligent young man. I just look forward to him making the right decisions. I hope that Boston would keep him and Jayson Tatum together.”
Can’t imagine why they wouldn’t, I tell him, although anything can happen in the NBA.
“Just like Kyrie and LeBron,” said Lipscomb.
OK, enough with the comparisons. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have arrived, and greatness awaits, so let’s just enjoy them while they’re here.