Boston Celtics

Exploring Jayson Tatum’s potential as a small-ball power forward

Boston Celtics’ head coach Brad Stevens hasn’t been shy about slotting rookie Jayson Tatum into preseason lineups as the team’s nominal power forward. It’s a role he’s filled as both a bench player and a starter- a sneak preview of a variety of ways in which the Celtics may utilize small-ball lineups this year.

Tatum’s heavy minutes as a “big” are attributable to several factors. Marcus Morris has been unavailable. The Celtics don’t have a lot of traditional big men on their roster, and perhaps most importantly, the preseason is the perfect time to play around with never before implemented strategies.

Regardless of the exact motives, the results have been mixed. In Boston’s preseason opener, Tatum struggled to fill the role effectively. Charlotte’s Frank Kaminsky punished him on the block on consecutive possessions, and Tatum was unable to exploit his quickness advantage on the opposite end of the floor, spending most of his time floating on the perimeter.

He looked considerably better in the teams’ second matchup, knocking down far more open looks from three, and even toasting Kaminsky on a closeout.

While the amount of growth in Tatum’s ability to function as a power forward feels staggering, we may need to temper expectations a bit. The Hornets don’t have the most intimidating stable of bigs, and the Boston’s games against Charlotte were really the only real taste we got of Tatum playing against more traditional power forwards.

In both preseason games against the 76ers, he was tasked with covering wings, or matched up with Ben Simmons, who is about as far from conventional as one might find in this league (I mean this as a compliment). Tatum has looked much more at ease guarding and attacking smaller players. It keeps opponents from taking advantage of his skinny build, and allows him to open up his bag of tricks and lean on his greatest present day skills, mid-post footwork and difficult shot making.

That’s a nice option to be able to go to, particularly on hybrid bench units that may need a little extra scoring oomph, but the type of buckets that Tatum excels at getting run a bit counter to the Celtics’ general offensive philosophy, which prizes player and ball movement.

If Tatum wants to grow into a more meaningful contributor, and fill any time he spends at the four effectively, he’s going to have to focus on moving the ball, making open shots without hesitation, and slicing up closeouts by opposing bigs with efficient attacks off the dribble. He hasn’t shown a consistent ability to do that yet, but he’s got all of the requisite talent to learn to do so. It’s not hard to envision a world in which in three months time, defending Tatum with Kaminsky seems laughably unsustainable.

Maybe the best way to think about this isn’t so much what Tatum needs to do to play power forward in smaller units. The Celtics aren’t concerned about how their players fit into traditional positional definitions, so much as they’re interested understanding which combinations of players on their roster work well together. If Tatum can develop an ability to exploit opponents in a broader variety of ways, he’ll fit snugly into almost any permutation of players.

It doesn’t all need to come at once, and Boston would be wise to help Tatum approach his progress incrementally. Start first with playing good defense, making open shots, and picking the right spots to show of that sweet, sweet footwork in isolation. Then focus on attacking closeouts. Then think about facilitation. Tatum is in a fortunate enough situation that his team doesn’t need him to learn everything at once.

He’s looked more and more comfortable with every passing game, and it’s exciting to see Stevens put him in lineup contexts that he might not actually be ready for. He’s most certainly a little too slight to be defending true post players. Stevens knows that, but he’s tossing him into the fire anyways. In the wrong circumstances that could go terribly wrong. If players are stuck in the deep end with no lifesaver for too long, they can lose their confidence.

Tatum has plenty of support. His development will be insulated by the deep roster around him. That should given him, and his whip smart coach, the ability to explore what he is capable of. It’s already bearing fruit.

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