Jayson Tatum in a unique position with Celtics

BOSTON -- It'd be easy for Jayson Tatum to believe his own hype. Consider this series of events before the Boston Celtics' 19-year-old rookie, the No. 3 pick in the 2017 draft, has even played his first real NBA game:

(1) After watching the pingpong balls defy the Celtics for decades during the draft lottery, Danny Ainge finally landed the No.1 overall pick (assist to the Brooklyn Nets) then promptly traded it -- and the right to select presumed top pick Markelle Fultz -- while shuffling back two spots and picking up a future asset. Ainge later suggested he would have taken Tatum at No. 1 even if the Celtics had not moved back.

(2) In his first summer league game, playing against Fultz and the Philadelphia 76ers, no less, Tatum hit a step-back jumper in the final seconds to lift Boston to victory. The highlight got heavy air time on SportsCenter over the next 24 hours and talking heads debated whether Tatum could be the next Paul Pierce.

(3) Pierce unexpectedly dropped by the Celtics' training facility this summer, showed Tatum a blank banner hanging in the corner, and said it was his job to help fill it in. Afterward, Pierce told NBC Sports Boston that Tatum has the sort of skills that Pierce didn't develop until six or seven years into his NBA career (by which point he was a multiple-time All-Star averaging as much as 26.1 points per game).

(4) Kyrie Irving, still getting settled after the late-August trade that delivered him to Boston, was asked a rather benign question about Tatum's potential and proceeded to gush about the rookie for nearly a full minute while declaring that the "sky is the limit" for Tatum. Irving added that he's "serious when I tell you guys that that dude is a bad dude."

(5) On the second day of training camp in Newport, Rhode Island, after Tatum had started to distinguish himself with his natural feel for the game, 11-year NBA veteran Al Horford suggested that Tatum is, "as ready as I've seen any rookie." Pressed on whether Tatum will be able to contribute in his first season, Horford didn't hesitate with his response: "No question."

And yet, when all of this is presented to Tatum, he offers a half smile and shrugs.

"I know I have to come in here every day and just work," said Tatum, downplaying all the chatter about his potential. "I need to do the small things and do what's best for the team.

On this day, the soft-spoken Duke product has had a rough go in one-on-one drills while working against teammates Jaylen Brown (the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft) and Marcus Smart (the No. 6 pick in the 2014 draft) and would prefer to be getting up some extra jumpers rather than trying to help a reporter determine whether we need to slow down a hype train that Tatum's not even certain he deserves.

"Most guys in my position don't get drafted to such a high-caliber team like the Celtics, so it makes me work harder because I have to compete and earn everything," he said.

As he talks, Tatum's eyes are glued to Brown, who has returned to the floor for some shots following their one-on-one battles. The two were fast friends this summer, especially having already crossed paths during their high school days. Brown knows all about what Tatum is about to experience and is eager to help him along the way.

Brown, after riding the rookie roller coaster a year ago, is competing for a starting job this season. He speaks with a wisdom well beyond his mere 20 years, and that's reflected when he calls Tatum "Kid" while praising the way Tatum approaches the game.

Brown sees all the potential that the others do in Tatum, but really appreciates the way he handles all the promotion.

"First off, he's really talented and super humble," Brown said. "Me and him connected a lot because we get along and kind of see things the same way. It's amazing how cool and humble he is. He's very to himself and, at the same time, he's a great kid, great to be around.

"He just has that mindset that he wants to get better. He competes and sometimes we pick each up other up when we're slacking. That's good because we're just going to keep pushing ourselves to be better and that's what I admire about him. He has that mindset, and not a lot of people in our generation do."

Make no mistake, Tatum is kind of a big deal. The Duke product will earn $5.6 million this year; only Boston's star trio of Gordon Hayward ($29.7 million), Al Horford ($27.7) and Irving ($18.9) will earn more.

Tatum is one of a handful of rookies to sign a shoe deal with Nike this summer. He shares an agent with Irving, in Jeffrey Wechsler of PRP, whose roster of clients is so tiny they'd need retired Shaquille O'Neal to lace up his high-tops in order to put together a game of three-on-three.

Tatum sheepishly did ask Wechsler about one other potential endorsement deal after signing his rookie pact. Tatum loves Imo's Pizza from his native St. Louis. Tatum's reps reached out and the pizza company was intrigued by a partnership. Now Tatum is one of only two spokesmen for the chain, the other being 2011 World Series MVP David Freese, another St. Louis native.

Tatum, who quite often tweeted his love of Imo's throughout his high school and college days, has frozen pizzas shipped to his Boston-area apartment so he can enjoy the unique style of pie.

"Thin crust, provolone cheese, marina sauce -- it's just a St. Louis thing," said Tatum. "That's what I grew up eating. I'm probably biased."

Tatum brought another slice of home with him to Massachusetts. His mother, Brandy Cole, is living in the same building here -- but on a different floor.

Tatum looks a bit perplexed when a reporter wonders if an NBA player having his mother living nearby could get awkward. He's quick to note, "I've always lived with my mom. My whole life. It's nothing new to me."

It's a reminder of just how young Tatum is. He won't turn 20 until after the All-Star break this season.

"It means a lot because, at the end of the day, I'm still 19," said Tatum said of having his mother there. "Only 18 months ago, I was in high school. I don't know everything yet. I am growing up, but I still need help along the way."

It was noteworthy that Tatum was one of Boston's first subs during the team's exhibition opener on Monday night, checking in alongside Smart early in the first quarter. Tatum is likely to find immediate minutes playing multiple positions on the wing.

Less than a minute into his first preseason shift, Tatum got a wide-open look from in front of the Boston bench, where teammates rose in unison as he went up with his shot. Tatum missed badly, but got another look from the corner later in the quarter, only to find back rim. The nerves were obvious.

Tatum settled in during the second half, and his natural talents took over. His first NBA bucket came in the third quarter when, after trying to muscle his way into the post, he pulled up over Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker and splashed a long jumper. Tatum added three consecutive makes early in the fourth quarter, taking advantage of his length each time.

Ainge most certainly took a risk in moving back to select Tatum. If Fultz develops into the surefire star that most believe he'll become, then there will always be some what-ifs. But in a modern NBA that puts a premium on 3-point shooting and defensive versatility, Tatum is an extremely intriguing prospect.

Yes, he must be more consistent with his 3-point shot (he shot 34.2 percent in 29 games for Duke), but he did win the Celtics' 3-point shooting challenge at the team's open practice.

Tatum and the Celtics visit Fultz and the Sixers on Friday night in the first of two preseason games between the teams over a four-day span. Four more regular-season meetings await. The two 2017 draftees will forever be linked.

In the infancy of his NBA career, the Celtics believe they have barely scratched the surface with Tatum.

"Bottom line is, he can get so much better," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "He's already a good player, but he can get a lot better. I think that's one of our charges, is to really make sure that every day is a learning day.

"He's got a good attitude about it. I think he's a lot like Jaylen from the standpoint of I don't think he's going to get too high or too low. He's got a really even-keel about him."

Yes, Brown might like that Tatum doesn't get caught up in his own hype, but he doesn't mind fueling it, either.

"You can expect a great year from JT," Brown said. "I think scoring the ball is something that he does easy and I think we're going to need that. I think that's going to be obvious.

"I think Jayson's athleticism and his versatility, being able to guard multiple positions and things like that, are going to be impressive as well. And his length -- when we start getting deep into the playoffs, we're going to need that. JT's going to be a great asset to this team going forward and going into the future for however long he's here or I'm here."

For Celtics fans, the Tatum-Brown bromance leaves them weak in the knees. Not only are the two likely to be key pieces if Boston is to contend for a title now, but they might just be the faces of the franchise further down the road.

Brown suggested that he and Tatum are "kindred spirits." That was obvious at summer league where they embraced a "Seven-Eleven" nickname based on their jersey numbers.

But when Boston traded Avery Bradley in July in order to create the cap room necessary to sign prized free-agent Hayward, Tatum's preferred No. 0 became available. Brown tried to convince Tatum to stick with No. 11 but the rookie wanted his collegiate digit.

"I did try to dissuade him a little bit, but it's all good," Brown said. "We are going to figure out something, some other nickname we're going to come up with. We've already been talking about it actually. He [messaged] me [on Snapchat] last night and was like, 'Man, we have to come up with something.' I guess he looks at me as the brains of the operation, so I'm like, 'All right. I got you.'"

Unfortunately, Brown and Tatum's basketball skills are, at least thus far, better than their marketing skills.

"The names that we were thinking were pretty bad though," Brown said. "We had 'Bread and Butter.' Terrible. We had 'Peanut Butter and Jelly' -- 'PB and J' is what he said. It wasn't very good."

Tatum confirmed that the nickname hunt has turned up nothing but duds. He figures it's just one more thing he needs to work on this season.