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Jayson Tatum looks like a budding star for the Celtics even when he’s struggling

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Boston’s young wing leaves a major impression even amid a shooting slump.

Jayson Tatum takes a shot for the Celtics.
Jayson Tatum is struggling at times despite his mammoth talent.

Jayson Tatum is +128 this season, which leads the NBA. Nobody else is even above 100 (LeBron James is second at +96 at time of publish). The Boston Celtics have pretty much been dominant regardless of who is on the floor, but Tatum is the lone outlier: When he sits they fade on both ends, having been outscored by 9.8 points per 100 possessions. With Tatum, Boston is playing a juggernaut. Without him they’re playing like the New York Knicks.

Plus-minus is a noisy stat, especially when used to quantify 135 minutes of action. Tatum is surrounded by talented players, guided by smart coaches, and plays for an organization that is good at being good. But it’s also fair to say this isn’t a coincidence. Tatum has scored 20 or more points in six of his 10 games. He leads the Celtics in minutes, shots, rebounds, steals, and front-court touches. He’s second in usage rate and total deflections, spaces the floor on offense while shrinking it on the other end.

Intricate footwork, long arms, and a high release let him get whatever shot he wants, whenever he feels like taking it, regardless of what’s in front of him. The only downside is that whenever Tatum crouches into a triple-threat position his options multiply into the millions; his worst enemy as an attacker is basketball’s own paradox of choice.

Tatum has too many options in his arsenal. It can sometimes bog down his progress and make the game look harder than his talent licenses it to be. In sharper moments, Tatum punches with artful deception, masked by bluffs and parrys that hypnotize whoever’s guarding him.

Naturally, this is someone Celtics head coach Brad Stevens doesn’t want to keep on the bench for too long. Tatum’s stretches of rest are frequent throughout the game, but shorter than most of his teammates’. This makes sense. Regardless of who else is on the court, on either team, Tatum fits in, fluidly see-sawing between life as a complementary weapon and focal centerpiece who can defend point guards and power forwards just the same.

He’s undoubtedly effective, with breathtaking aesthetics, borderline-all-star production, and one of the most effortless three-point shots in the galaxy. But right now Tatum also happens to be stuck in an epic slump. So far, he’s shooting below 40 percent inside the arc and has missed approximately all of his layups. This is only a slight exaggeration. There are 100 players who’ve taken at least 50 shots within five feet of the rim. Zero are less accurate than Tatum, who’s shooting an unthinkable 39.7 percent. Thirty. Nine. Point. Seven. Percent.

This is more bizarre than disappointing. Since 2006, Boobie Gibson and Derek Fisher are the only two players who finished a season below 40 percent on at least 100 shots that close to the hoop. Tatum made a perfectly fine 61.3 percent of them a year ago. These early misses are mostly a fluke that will eventually regress towards the mean.

Tatum is driving to the basket nearly twice as often as he did last year, and his team-leading 6.6 field goal attempts at the end of them is more per game than LeBron James, Pascal Siakam, and Russell Westbrook. Some of these shots are forced, though: There are 61 players who average at least eight drives per game, and none have a lower pass percentage than Tatum. Look how open Smart is on the opposite wing on the play below.

He can stand to seek out more contact, too, instead of thinking his long arms will reach the rim before a shot blocker can. (His free-throw rate is half of Jaylen’s right now.) But all in all Tatum is making visible steps towards his ceiling, whatever that looks like, and even though his general approach is a bit too bull-headed at the moment, his ongoing attempt to rectify some of the issues that plagued his sophomore season is vital.

Tatum leads Boston in long twos, but they’re now a much smaller part of his diet. Similar to his aforementioned struggle around the rim, though, among all players who’ve launched at least 20 mid-range jumpers, only Jordan Poole and Nikola Vucevic are less accurate than Tatum’s 29 percent. These shooting numbers will improve, but really hurt someone whose assist-to-usage ratio has plateaued despite running more pick-and-roll than ever before. (Tatum has only assisted two of Kemba Walker’s 76 buckets.) In other words, he’s not actively setting teammates up as often as he could. Even though he does a great job taking care of the ball, some of his contested shots can be open looks for someone else.

Tatum is the Plus-Minus King, but a few catch-all advanced stats — including 538’s RAPTOR, which uses tracking data and other data points to weigh on/off impact as it relates to a league-average player — aren’t impressed. RAPTOR pegs Tatum below Smart, Walker, Brown, and Daniel Theis; he’s currently tied with Cleveland Cavaliers guard Jordan Clarkson, and also 11th on his own team in Win Shares per 48 minutes. This is more intriguing than cause for panic.

How Tatum makes his team better may be slightly more ambiguous than his league-leading plus-minus suggests, but his current inefficiency underrates how savage he can be once exceedingly makeable shots that haven’t gone in start to fall.

He’s 21 years old, far from perfect, and must eventually make quicker decisions with the ball than he currently does, but important elements of his game are starting to evolve. Despite one of the league’s ugliest early-season slumps he still looks the part of a budding star. It’s terrifying, and just goes to show how special whatever is in store for him, and the Celtics, can still be.