Hopefully we’re far enough removed from Gordon Hayward’s chilling opening-night leg injury to give some thought to the bigger implications for the Celtics. The Hayward play, which most everyone wishes they could unsee, appeared a brutal course-correction for a new-look Boston team with real aspirations this season. With Hayward on the mend for the rest of the season, focus understandably shifts toward the development of the Celtics’ blue-chip young players. So for better or worse, talking about Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum in separate breaths is going to be difficult for the time being. So far, it’s been mostly better.
The post-Hayward reality has skewed close to best-case scenario for the Celtics through the first two weeks. Quicker than you can say “Draft Assets,” Brad Stevens has steered them to a more-than-respectable 4–2 record entering a Monday tilt with the Spurs. As such, the prodigious capability of Brown, who just turned 21, and Tatum, a 19-year-old rookie, deserves our attention. Both forwards have given Boston in the neighborhood of 15 points and six rebounds per game in starting roles. Last week, Brown and Tatum combined for 45 points in a win over the Knicks, becoming the first pair of under-22 players in Celtics history to score 20 apiece in one game. Yes, Brad Stevens was a damn good college coach, but the output from two regulars who could still be starring back on campus has been no less stunning.
Many kept a watchful eye as Brown and Tatum, the respective No. 3 picks in the 2016 and 2017 drafts (and the fruits of Danny Ainge’s opportunistic commerce) took turns getting shots up at Summer League. Both had impressive spurts in July, but there was only trace evidence of what might translate immediately. It’s an environment where two things tend to be easily apparent: elite athletic talent, and on-court habits both positive and negative. As such, it was no surprise to come away impressed and still wonder exactly how the Celtics’ big-boy roster would actually fit together when it began to matter.
With that in mind, what’s most encouraging about these developments has been the apparent embrace of adjustments. These are two players who entered the league as scorers, with other facets of their games existing more in the abstract. Brown’s strength and explosiveness when attacking the basket have always made him difficult to deal with, but over the course of the past year, he’s also embraced a place as Boston’s most versatile defender (apologies to Marcus Smart). Brown’s jumper and ball-handing have also improved, but it’s the apparent self-knowledge and role acceptance that have unlocked him as a key piece this early in his career.
The loss of Hayward—coupled with Marcus Morris's absence—forced Boston to rethink how roles were doled out in the frontcourt, and Stevens’s top two lineups in the earlygoing have been built around Brown’s versatility. The Celtics have been successful playing Smart at the two, Tatum at the three and Brown at the four next to Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, but they've also gone big by slotting Aron Baynes in the middle to clean up the mess and having Brown stick to the opponent’s top scoring wing. It’s a small sample size, but when he’s off the court, Boston’s net rating has been more than 13 points worse. The counting stats are nice, but Brown’s started to thrive outside the box score. Also, we only have a small sample size, but the Celtics own the NBA’s second-ranked defense, allowing just 95.1 points per 100 possessions over their first six games.
As for Tatum, well, his instant viability has been more surprising. We knew that he could and would be able to score at a high level, and the advanced footwork and offensive instincts have carried over nicely. He’s shooting 50% from the field and looking bouncier and more nimble than he did at Duke. Although his set-shot mechanics from three are a little awkward, they look repeatable and passable. Also: he’s frickin’ 19! Tatum can still be a ball-stopper, and the disease of Trying to Do Too Much may yet ensnare him on the offensive end. The Celtics have actually been significantly more efficient scoring the ball when he’s off the floor. But these are growing pains, and the Celtics will take what they’re getting from him. Also, watch at least the first 30 seconds of this mix below, because Tim Hardaway Jr. gets got.
Much like with Brown, the most eye-opening factor has been Tatum’s defensive effort. He’s looked focused and has not been the liability many expected. Playing with Brown and Smart means the Celtics can effectively control Tatum’s matchups, and he can commit to rebounding, using his length and staying within his means. Tatum has never been known for his defense, dating back to high school, but to be fair, he’s also never been asked to do much of it. He wasn’t awful in college, averaging more than a steal and block per game, but those numbers aren’t always indicative of defensive competence and how it translates to the complexities of the next level. Brown’s high-end defensive cover skills look like a perfect complement, and Tatum has the luxury of easing himself into Boston’s schemes. Remember, of course, that the Celtics were able to move down and receive a first-round pick to get him.
Of course, a lot of credit goes to Stevens for making this work. It’s not easy to fit formerly ball-dominant kids into positions that require a variety of demands on a roster that already skewed young. Playing off Irving, one of the league’s best at turning nothing possessions into points certainly helps (and he’s distributed the ball fairly well so far). Horford has always tended to make his teammates better on both ends, and in Baynes, Boston has a dirty-work guy to help solve rebounding issues and slide Horford to the four. It’ll be curious to see what Stevens does when Morris comes back to reclaim a chunk of the power forward minutes. The synergy between team, system and coach is apparent in Brown and Tatum’s successes. There are ups and downs still to come, but both youngsters will wind up better for the unexpected demands this season has placed on them. Anyone got any good nicknames?