Moments after the final buzzer sounded in Staples Center on Sunday afternoon, Lakers star LeBron James met Celtics forward Jayson Tatum near half court for what was a relatively lengthy embrace. While the exact conversation was of course muffled, it’s not hard to guess at least some of what was said. Later that day, the 16-time All-Star made clear what he thought of the Celtics’ first-time All-Star.
“That boi to the left of me is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM,” James wrote in an Instagram post, sharing a picture of the two next to each other at the scorer’s table.
Tatum had maybe his best career NBA game on Sunday, less than two weeks removed from what might have been his previous best career game ever. Despite his team losing 114-112, he totaled 41 points even after notching just a single point in the first quarter. He told reporters afterward that this past Sunday was the “first time” NBA teams doubled him with such fervor, a strategy the Lakers resorted to after he torched them for 36 points in the second and third periods combined. “Tatum has reached a new height—superstar level,” Celtics swingman Jaylen Brown said afterward.
If there was any doubt before, go ahead now and say that Tatum is a star in the making. Yet, as Brown alluded, he also might be worth of being called a star right now.
James’s praise for Tatum is nothing new. During the 2017–18 Eastern Conference finals, when James, still on the Cavaliers, was looking to reach his eighth-straight finals, the all-time great spent seven games battling the then 19-year-old Tatum and his undermanned Celtics team.
At one point in Game 7, the Celtics led by 12 points, and they even took a halftime lead into the locker room. While Boston shot a grisly 7 of 39 from three on that May evening and squandered their early lead, Tatum showed on a national stage that he would be a force to reckon with for years to come. He finished his team’s season-ending loss with 24 points on nine-of-17 shooting. Late in the fourth quarter, he threw down a ferocious slam over James, posing after the bucket.
“I know he’s built for stardom,” James said after his team’s victory that night.
Tatum’s continued growing since his rookie campaign. His sophomore season saw him improve his offensive productivity, upping his scoring by two points while attempting two more shots per game. Yet, at times in 2018-19, he also seemed trapped in the malaise that hovered over last season's Celtics.
He’s reached new heights this season, averaging seven more points per game (23.1 ppg.) than he did in 2018–19. At media day this year, Tatum discussed his desire both to showcase his improved three-point shot and attempt more free throws. Though he still has room to improve, Tatum has upped his three-point shooting from 37% to 39%, while taking three more attempts per game. He’s also now taking two more free throws per game (4.7), an indication of slight progress.
This year, Tatum has emerged as a staple of Boston’s top lineups. The Celtics’ five-man group of Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Daniel Theis, Marcus Smart and Tatum is currently in the top 10 of net rating among lineups across the league with at least 100 minutes played. The C’s five-man group where Brown is in for Smart is not far behind.
The No. 3 pick in the 2017 NBA draft also has the highest on-off split of any Celtic with an 11.1 net rating as of Tuesday night. It’s especially clear on offense that Boston has an added jolt with the Duke product in the lineup.
The result of his stellar first 50-plus games was an appearance in the league’s most recent All-Star Game. While Tatum watched patiently from the sideline as Team LeBron prevailed over Team Giannis, James again made clear in Chicago his thoughts on the young star.
“That kid is special,” James said two weekends ago. “Obviously, that’s the reason he’s a first-time All-Star. He’s been special all year.”
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel (who also coached Team LeBron) added Sunday that Tatum is already “one of the best players in the world.”
The Celtics enter Wednesday night’s action two games behind the Raptors for the East’s No. 2 seed. And while it’s possible they’ll have to go on the road to open the second round of the postseason, they won’t be under-talented. Come mid-April, May and maybe June, Boston might have the conference’s second-best player on their team. Tatum’s ceiling is as high as anyone’s on the C’s roster and there’s no reason he can’t be the best player in a series against Toronto, Miami, or Philadelphia. (It’s tough to imagine him outplaying Giannis Antetokounmpo).
Two years ago, Tatum was the focus of an episode of Kobe Bryant’s ESPN+ show, Detail, where the late-Lakers legend pointed out how the budding star needed to take better angles off curls, point his toes toward the basket an increasing amount before attacking and use off-ball screen more effectively. Bryant noted that such little tweaks would help conserve Tatum’s energy until late-game situations when he’ll need to use his variety of tricks to get to the rim. It’s clear years later that Tatum’s developed a repertoire that can rival those at the top of the league.
It’s fair to wonder if he’s not there just yet on a night-to-night basis, though, his recent stretch of play would suggest otherwise. The league’s biggest star has certainly taken notice.
“Keep going #YoungKing,” James said Sunday, concluding his Instagram post with the two forwards.
“Moments you live for!” Tatum wrote on his own post showing the same picture. “Just a kid from St. Louis.”
A kid who is already a star.