The de-Mamba’ing of Jayson Tatum has begun

Updated: October 9, 2019

12:53 PM ET

BOSTON — Nothing went as expected for the Boston Celtics a year ago. Jayson Tatum‘s season was no exception.

The Celtics entered the season as a favorite to reach the NBA Finals, in part because Tatum, who had been brilliant in the postseason as a rookie, was expected to take a major leap. Instead, the Celtics fell flat, as did Tatum’s progress.

When Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga sat down with Tatum before the start of this season, he told Tatum that was all behind them.

“I made a deal with him the day before training camp that we would not discuss last year at all,” Larranaga told ESPN last week. “This is my first year working with him, and so I just said, ‘We’re just starting from right here, doing what we know is right, playing the right way and working the right way.'”

Tatum started that process himself almost as soon as the season ended. Now the Celtics hope that they will see an improved version of their young forward — one that hews more closely with what is required in today’s NBA.

Amid everything that was going wrong for the Celtics last season, one thing was clear: Tatum didn’t look right.

“[I was] making the game tougher than I probably should have,” Tatum said last week.

He’d dribble into difficult midrange shots, including fadeaways. Those were shots Kobe Bryant, who worked with Tatum in the summer of 2018, made a living taking — and making. But the NBA has since evolved into a league hyper-focused on shots at the rim and beyond the arc — and, last year, Tatum didn’t take enough of either.

Among the 96 players who had at least 100 direct isolations last season, according to data from Second Spectrum, Tatum ranked dead last in efficiency, with an average of .70 points per play.

Yet, despite those struggles, Tatum was isolating more than he did as a rookie (going from 2.89 isolations per game to 3.25, per Second Spectrum) and driving to the rim less (6.47 to 5.76).

“Last year was kind of funky in all aspects,” Tatum said. “I understand that. I acknowledge that, and I’m just trying to be better this year.”

The Celtics are a collection of question marks. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are gone. Kemba Walker has arrived, as have several rookies. The talent level appears below what it was a year ago — as are expectations for the team.

Of the many things Boston has to sort out, the single most important question is just how good Tatum can be.

He has the tools to be the go-to scorer every contender needs. And, as he showed with his thunderous East finals Game 7 dunk over James two seasons ago, playing on the game’s biggest stage isn’t too much for him.

“Jayson has set a level of expectation for himself because he did what very few rookies have done,” Stevens said last week. “And that is help win playoff series.”

Now, the Celtics are hoping these changes to his game will allow him to do so again.

“He’s going to be a star,” Walker said. “He really is. Just because of the way he works. Especially now, being around him in training camp and seeing the way he’s playing.

“He’ll be all right, man. He’ll be all right.”

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