'This kid, he's going to be a superstar': Jayson Tatum is no average rookie

BOSTON -- Long after the practice court had cleared following a late October workout, Boston Celtics forward Marcus Morris could be heard playfully trash-talking rookie Jayson Tatum as the two engaged in spirited 1-on-1 work.

After Morris twice created space for a pair of midrange jumpers, Tatum finally generated a stop and extracted a bit of revenge against the veteran by repeatedly attacking the basket and using his length to finish layups with Morris, sidelined for the start of a season due to a balky knee, unable to fully contest.

Undeterred, Morris walked over to a pack of reporters after the battle ended and, in his soft-but-firm nature, proudly declared, "It felt pretty good beating a rook ass one-on-one."

Truth be told, Morris can't get enough of the rook. He sees a little bit of himself in the 19-year-old and says he yearns to provide the veteran leadership that Morris never received early in his NBA career.

"I had to learn on my own," Morris said. "Just coming from experience, just watching and seeing everything. ... Some rookies come in and think they know everything. [Tatum] was open."

"He's like a little brother to me," Morris added. "That's why I continue to be around him more and more. We just bond well. Younger players, sometimes your mind goes other places and sometimes things don't go right for you on the court. I just keep him encouraged."

What Morris really likes is the way Tatum plays the game. He loves the youngster's confidence, especially when he goes into attack mode, and he loves that he doesn't back down from challenges, like in that 1-on-1 session.

"That's what you want to see from young guys," Morris said. "When I got here, I saw how he holds himself, the swagger he's got. It reminded me of myself. He's a good kid and he's going to be around this league for a long time. ..."

"This kid, he's going to be a superstar."

With every trip to watch Tatum compete, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge walked away feeling as if Tatum had been the best player on the court. It happened the first time he saw Tatum live as a high schooler at the 2016 Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon and again during Tatum's lone season at Duke during the 2017 ACC tournament in Brooklyn.

"That two-day window [at the Hoop Summit], I thought he was the best player there among the Americans and the international players at the time," Ainge said. "He could shoot, he anticipated, he rebounded, he had length, he handled the ball. But what I really just liked was his poise. He had a great way about him."

As the Celtics' brain trust converged in Los Angeles in early June to watch a pre-draft workout with Tatum, the lingering question was whether the teenager was now the best player in the 2017 draft, for which the Celtics held the No. 1 pick, the result of a fortuitous swap with the Brooklyn Nets from the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce summer blockbuster of 2013.

The knock on Tatum to that point had been his perimeter shooting. But he had spent the break between the end of his lone college season and the start of private pre-draft workouts hoisting 250 3-pointers per day with hopes of being able to prove to NBA suitors that he could eliminate one of his few perceived weaknesses.

Then he went out in front of Boston brass and did just that.

It wasn't the tipping point for a Celtics staff that had Tatum in the conversation for the top pick throughout the draft evaluation process, but it certainly made them think a little bit harder about whether the lanky 6-foot-8 wing had the best chance of being the franchise-altering talent they craved.

A short time after that workout, the Celtics dealt the No. 1 pick to the Philadelphia 76ers, confident that Tatum would still be available to them with the No. 3 selection they received in exchange, while also picking up a potential future lottery pick for their troubles.

Now, three months into the season, Tatum has muscled his way into Rookie of the Year contender status.

Maybe most astoundingly, Tatum leads the NBA in 3-point shooting at a staggering 46 percent clip. According to Second Spectrum shooting data, Tatum has a quantified shooter impact (qSI) of 15.4 percent, meaning that he shoots 15.4 percent better on 3-pointers than an average player in similar situations (based on defensive pressure, shot clock, and shot type). That mark ranks him third in the NBA behind only the Chicago Bulls' Nikola Mirotic (17.5) and the Golden State Warriors' Klay Thompson (15.6).

"Right away you could just tell you're dealing with a guy that's not an average rookie."
Celtics C Al Horford, on his first impressions of rookie Jayson Tatum

"I guess the one thing that he did do in the pre-draft workout that he hadn't shown -- but I never really doubted -- was whether he could be a 3-point shooter," Ainge said. "I can't say I thought that he would be shooting the percentages that he has shot this year, but I felt, throughout his career he would get to this point. He had too good of a shot."

For the Celtics, it was a small glimpse into Tatum's beyond-his-years maturity and the way he yearned to be an impact player at the next level. For a front office that routinely debated whether the likes of Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson or Dennis Smith Jr. were worthy of the No. 1 overall pick, it soon became clear that Tatum was their guy.

On Thursday night, the Celtics host the 76ers in the teams' fourth meeting of the season. Fultz seems likely to miss his 37th consecutive game while working his way back from what the 76ers termed scapular muscle imbalance and shoulder soreness.

Video of Fultz's new shooting motion is being analyzed with intense scrutiny. Thanks to the draft spot swap, the Celtics are positioned to collect a potential top-5 pick from the Los Angeles Lakers this year (if it falls between Nos. 2-5), or the Sacramento Kings' pick in 2019 (if it isn't No. 1).

Tatum's success, juxtaposed to Fultz's woes, only hammer home both Boston's shrewd drafting and trading activity. Tatum has started all 45 games this season for the Celtics, who sit comfortably atop the Eastern Conference with a 34-11 record.

As one NBA talent evaluator suggested recently, "Just imagine if the 76ers had a frontcourt of Tatum, [Ben] Simmons, and [Joel] Embiid right now. That's scary."

Instead, Tatum might be the biggest reason for optimism about Boston's future as a title contender. In fact, there might come a time in the not-so-distant future when Tatum is the best player on the court for the Celtics.

New Orleans Pelicans rookie Frank Jackson swears that Tatum's success shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

"I called this last year," said Jackson, who played with Tatum at Duke last season. "He's probably one of the most talented guys I've played with, at both ends of the floor. You see that now."

While the Celtics currently look like geniuses, Tatum wasn't a surefire No. 1 pick and most Boston fans had sold themselves on the idea of Fultz playing alongside Isaiah Thomas. But Tatum offered something the Celtics desperately needed: length on the wing and a scoring threat outside the guard position.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens noted how the idea of Tatum and second-year wing Jaylen Brown developing together grew mighty intriguing with Boston yearning to not only compete now but build a sustainable contender.

Even after a strong summer league showing, few expected Tatum to be an impact player this early. But Tatum earned a starting role even before Gordon Hayward's injury on opening night. He's averaging 13.8 points, the third-highest average on the Celtics' roster trailing only Kyrie Irving (24.1) and Brown (14.3).

It's not just the scoring for Tatum, but it's the way he's doing it with loud dunks and slick ballhandling. On Tuesday night, Tatum caught a pass on the wing in transition, went between the legs and behind his back with the dribble deftness of Irving while shaking defender Jrue Holiday then splashed a fading midrange jumper, much to the delight of the Boston bench behind him.

In second returns on All-Star fan voting, Tatum ranked seventh among East frontcourt players, one spot behind teammate Al Horford, who seems likely to earn a reserve spot when coaches vote for backups later this month. Horford said that he could tell by summer league that there was something different about Tatum.

"Some of those moves that he made off the dribble -- it was a lot of midrange stuff -- but you could just tell, even at the end of games, Coach was giving him the ball in late situations," Horford said. "He was comfortable attacking and making plays.

"Right away you could just tell you're dealing with a guy that's not an average rookie."

Before the season, Celtics legend and ESPN NBA analyst Paul Pierce repeatedly noted how Tatum had offensive moves that Pierce, one of the franchise's top scorers, suggested he didn't develop until much later in his career. Pierce spent time with Tatum at Boston's practice facility and came away gushing about the youngster's poise.

"He sounded like a guy who knew what he wanted to accomplish." Pierce said after his time with Tatum early this season. "And, the funny thing about that, it translates into his game. ... He has a really mature game."

And there's a chance the Celtics have only scratched the surface with their star rookie.

The life of an NBA rookie can be overwhelming enough, but Tatum's life got a whole lot busier on Dec. 6 when he welcomed newborn Jayson Christopher Tatum Jr.

Tatum initially stayed back in Boston after the birth of his son but rejoined his teammates in San Antonio before the start of a three-game trip. Arriving hours before tipoff of a national TV game against the Spurs, Tatum, who had endured flight delays on the commercial trek to Texas, had the look of a new dad who was short on sleep but went out that night and put up 20 points and eight rebounds.

Along the way, he also got his own player-edition shoes and found time to make a cameo appearance in Irving's new Nike ad. As things get crazier around him, Tatum seems largely unfazed. Similar to the smoothness he operates with on the court, Tatum takes a rising star and new dad duties in stride.

"I mean, yeah, it's crazy. I've got a lot going on right now," shrugged Tatum, who posted pictures of his new son to Instagram last week (Tatum did not identify the baby's mother in the post).

Tatum isn't overwhelmed in part because of the presence of his mother, Brandy Cole. Cole was 18 when she gave birth to Tatum on March 3, 1998. Tatum still marvels at how his mother went on to earn three college degrees, including a law degree in 2010, often bringing young Jayson to college classes with her. Tatum beams with pride when he talks about his mother, who is living in the same building in Boston now and can lend a knowledgeable hand with babysitting duties.

"She really deserves all the credit," Tatum said. "She helps out a lot. So I'm glad she's here."

Morris, a Philadelphia native, likes Tatum's St. Louis roots. Morris, who often wears gear with the acronym FOE -- "Family Over Everything" -- has met Tatum's family and came away raving about his support system.

"I met his mom," Morris said, "and she reminds me exactly of my mom."

Echoes Ainge: "[Tatum's] mother has been a huge part of his life. She's a super woman. ... She's done an amazing job with Jayson."

With Tatum Jr. in good hands, the Celtics are focused on how they can best nurture his dad.

Tatum simply shrugs when someone brings up the notion of a rookie wall. After all, there's nothing in his play that suggests he might soon struggle. Despite all the December craziness, Tatum averaged 14.6 points on 52.9 percent shooting overall and 45.1 percent shooting beyond the 3-point arc and was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month.

After Tatum earned the accolade, Stevens was asked for his reaction.

"Sweet," the coach offered with a half smile. Stevens, unwavering in his dedication to a growth mindset philosophy, doesn't make it a habit of showering young players with praise, believing there is always room for improvement.

"I sent [Tatum] a text that there's a lot of things that can derail forward progress," Stevens said. "He earned that [award]. At the end of the day though it's continuing to do all the great things he's doing because he's consistent and that's why he got it -- because he's played well and he's consistent. It's hard to do that at any age, but he's 19, so there's a great opportunity now to respond to that nice reward."

The next step for Tatum is more defensive consistency and maybe a bit more offensive aggression when the team needs it. But the Celtics are taking a big-picture approach to the rookie's development.

"I think he has some good veterans to learn from," Ainge said. "He's still 19. I think there's still a lot he's going through, as far as it's an NBA season. No matter how smart you are, you gotta experience some of these things. We've been really focusing on him taking really good care of his body, eating right, and getting the sleep, and doing all the maintenance things that sometimes it takes guys into their late 20s before they figure out.

"And we're trying to get him to watch Kyrie and to watch Al Horford and some of the other guys -- Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis -- how well they take care of their bodies. That's been a real focus for us. Just getting him to understand how important it is to take care of himself."

Yes, Tatum is still be a teenager, but he's already one of the most important factors in Boston's' success this season. And his development might ultimately determine whether the Celtics can emerge as a true title contender deep into the future.