One Big Question for … Jayson Tatum

We’ve never seen a scorer like Jayson Tatum before. Certainly not one this efficient, this fast.

Tatum averaged 13.9 points and 58.6 percent true shooting in his rookie campaign. He is the only player in history to do that in his age 19 season, even if you round down to 13 and 58. Same goes for the playoffs, when Tatum averaged 18.5 points on 57.8 percent true shooting.

That doesn’t even account for the fact that Tatum played 80 regular-season games, while starting on the wing for the league’s best defensive team. It also ignores that he was the best player on the floor when the Celtics came within six minutes of ending a streak of seven straight Finals appearances by one of the game’s greatest players. (You’ll recall that Tatum dunked on LeBron James in the fourth quarter of a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals, drained a 3-pointer to put the Celtics ahead and inexplicably didn’t get another look down the stretch).

Honestly, how good can this kid be? You’ll hear from folks in the NBA know that MVP potential isn’t out of the question, scoring titles are even less of a stretch, and because nobody has done what Tatum has done before his age 20 season, it’s all entirely believable. Realistic, even.

Excluding big men, who have it easier scoring from the block, the only other players to average at least 13 points on 58 percent true shooting before their 21st birthdays are Magic Johnson, Adrian Dantley and Eric Gordon. (Even the list of bigs is short and includes names like Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Davis.) Throw in all rookies in NBA history, regardless of age, and the list of non-bigs to score so efficiently stretches only to include Michael Jordan and James Worthy.

In other words, if Tatum follows a similar trajectory as the players who came before him, his ceiling is Michael Jordan, the greatest player in NBA history, and his floor is Eric Gordon, a former Sixth Man of the Year and the third option on a legit championship contender. (Granted, His Airness averaged 28.2 freaking points per game as a rookie. He was also two years older than Tatum in his debut season.) Everyone besides Gordon on the list is a Hall of Famer.

Statistically speaking, Worthy is the closest comparison to Tatum. Their rookie averages:

  • Tatum: 13.9 PPG (58.6 TS%), 5.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 0.7 BPG; 15.3 PER
  • Worthy: 13.4 PPG (59.4 TS%), 5.2 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 0.8 BPG; 17.4 PER

Worthy was 21 years old as a rookie and didn’t have a 3-point shot. Tatum had one of the great 3-point shooting seasons in NBA history, and his ability to replicate that could raise his floor considerably. Worthy also broke his leg prior to the playoffs that season, so we didn’t get to see him in the postseason until 1984, when he averaged 17.7 points on 60.9 percent true shooting as the fourth option on a Lakers team that reached the Finals (and lost to Larry Bird’s Celtics).

Worthy averaged 14.5 points (59.1 TS%), 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game during the regular season in his sophomore campaign. Given what we saw in the playoffs, those statistics would almost seem disappointing from Tatum this season, but we have to consider that the return of Gordon Hayward and a presumably healthy season from Kyrie Irving would make the kid (at best) the third option on a team that, like those Lakers, will start five All-Star-level players.

Isn’t there a chance, though, that Tatum could be better than that already? We like to think of him as the next Paul Pierce, who averaged 19.5 points per game far less efficiently (55.0 TS%) in his second season, but those numbers came on a Celtics team that won 35 games and missed the playoffs. Tatum likes to think of himself as the next Kobe Bryant, who averaged 19.9 points on 54.9 percent true shooting in his age 20 season on a Lakers team that was a year out from going on a run of three consecutive titles. That doesn’t seem like an unattainable goal.

The list of players to average at least 19 points on 55 percent true shooting at age 20: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Shaquille O’Neal, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kobe. Need we remind you that Tatum averaged those numbers in the playoffs AS A 19-YEAR-OLD.

(For what it’s worth, Dantley keeps coming up on these lists. He was Rookie of the Year, won two scoring titles without a 3-point shot and made six All-Star appearances. He didn’t play on a team that made it out of the second round until his 30th birthday, but you would take his career.)

This season will be different. Tatum enters with the confidence of a kid who dunked on LeBron, chest-bumped him afterwards and lived to tell about it. With all the attention paid to Irving and Hayward and Al Horford, et al., he will have more open looks, the green light and desire to take them, and the opposing team’s best wing will be left to Jaylen Brown on the other end. The situation can’t be better, so long as he walks the tightrope of not trying to make too much of it.

The point is that we don’t know exactly how good Tatum can be, because as a scorer he’s been as good or better than some of the best names in the game at a younger age. What we do know is that any list of potential comparisons returns almost exclusively perennial All-Stars and Hall of Famers. That is perhaps the most exciting aspect of this upcoming season. The Celtics might have a more efficient Kobe Bryant on their hands, and he might not even be their best option.

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