Saturday, July 20, 2024

Celtics’ Jayson Tatum is starting to track among the best scorers of all time

Here’s a random but kind of crazy stat: Jayson Tatum has scored at least 30 points in 30.5% of his career games. That’s a higher percentage than Stephen Curry. It’s not apples to apples, necessarily, but you get the point. Tatum, perhaps somewhat quietly, is starting to track among some of the most elite scorers ever. 

He did it again on Monday, putting 35 points — his fourth 30-point game in his last five outings — on the Knicks as the Celtics pulled away for a 114-98 victory, improving to 8-2 on the season. This was the 137th career 30-point game for Tatum. That’s one more than Kawhi Leonard in almost 200 fewer games. 

Again, that’s a random stat. But it got me thinking. I started checking on 30-point games, and here’s what I found: Since 2020-21, Tatum has registered 97 30-point games. That’s more than Curry’s 93. If you want to argue that Tatum played more games over that stretch, you would be right, but not by much. He played 20 more games.

So let’s take it by percentages. Last season, Curry scored 30 or more in exactly 50% of his games. The last time Kevin Durant played more than 55 games (2021-22), he hit the 30-point mark 45% of the time. The sport’s all-time leading scorer LeBron James? In the highest-scoring season of his career, 2007-08 (30 PPG), he registered a 30-point game 52% of the time.

Tatum? He scored at least 30 points in 57% of his games last season, and he has already done it six out of 10 games this season. Last season, Tatum notched 11 40-point games, just two shy of the 13 40-spots Curry put up in his unanimous MVP season (2015-16). The most 40-point games LeBron has posted in a single season over that same span? Nine. 

At 25, Tatum is already the youngest player in Celtics history to reach 10,000 career points. If you really want to start making long-term projections, consider this: If Tatum were to play until he’s 38 (not totally unreasonable), and average 26 PPG over an average of 65 games per season (both reasonable), he would finish with more than 32,000 career points, right in range to surpass Michael Jordan, who’s presently fifth all time. 

At 28 PPG (which is what he has averaged over the past two seasons) over that same span, Tatum could pass Kobe Bryant for fourth. You might say Tatum won’t play 65 games per season for that long, or even if he does, he won’t average that many points for all of them. To that, I would say you might be right, but he also might play past the age of 38. 

No matter how you slice this, Tatum is starting — and there’s a long way to go, yes, but he’s starting — to track among the greatest scorers of all time. 

The 35 on Monday is a season high for Tatum. It’s not a huge number as a season high, even this early, for a scorer of Tatum’s caliber, but it reflects the remarkable consistency he has demonstrated to start the season. 

Tatum scored or assisted on 22 of Boston’s 30 fourth-quarter points Monday. At the 8:20 mark, the Celtics were up by just three. Tatum scored 15 points over the next six minutes, beginning with a step-back four-point play, as Boston’s lead ballooned to 16. Game over. 

Tatum is scoring in more ways this season, notably by posting up on 12% of his possessions, up from 5% last year, per Synergy, and scoring at a top-end 1.24 points per possession — worlds better than guys like Durant, Luka Doncic and even LeBron, all similar-positioned players who operate roughly as often with their back to the basket.  

You want numbers? The Celtics are loaded, we know this, and as such, they maintain a positive net rating when any player comes out of a game — except one. Jaylen Brown comes out? Celtics are still a plus-17.9. No Kristaps Porzingis? Still a plus-7.1. Jrue Holiday to the bench? Plus-7.0. Derrick White out? Plus-5.6. 

Care to hazard a guess who might be the lone exception to this rule? Yeah, it’s Tatum. Including Monday’s data, the Celtics are scrubbing opponents by 23.4 points per 100 possessions with Tatum on the floor, while they are being outscored by 13.6 per 100 when he comes off. 

I repeat: Any other Boston player else comes off the court? The Celtics are fine. If Tatum comes out? They go in the tank. Do the math, and Tatum, by himself, represents a 37-point swing over the course of a pretty typical NBA game of 100 possessions. 

Again, the Celtics are loaded with talented players. Tatum, who is averaging just under 29 points on 52% shooting, including 40% from 3 in the lowest usage rate since his third year in the league, is standing well above the rest. His 130.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass, is the most efficient mark of his career. As is the 62% he’s shooting on 2-pointers. 

What’s scary is Tatum is only scoring 0.61 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, which is something of a bread-and-butter action for him. That number is going to come up, and when it does, all these other numbers are going to look even better. What a start to the season for Tatum, and largely by extension, the Celtics. 

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