Jayson Tatum’s highly-developed offensive repertoire will be incomplete until he develops as a passer

The final step in becoming an elite scorer is mastering the skills that aren’t related to scoring the ball on your own. A good scorer can exist within an offense, but a great one uses those scoring opportunities to actively enhance their ability to assist their less gifted teammates. The simplest way to do that is to master a few basic passes, the ones that only a few players are ever strategically forced to make. 

Those players are the ones good enough to warrant extra attention from a defense in the first place. The concept is simple. While the best scorers don’t need to be a Magic Johnson-caliber passer, they fundamentally have to be able to punish defenses for committing extra resources to them because otherwise, they’re just trying to score against defenses built not to allow them to score. If you can’t pass out of a double-team, then your only move is shooting out of that double team. That’s not going to go well. 

Jayson Tatum has the scoring part down. He averaged 28.6 points per game in his final 17 appearances before the hiatus, but his personal jump hasn’t exactly been reflected in his team’s performance. Boston’s 112.1 offensive rating improved only to 112.9 during Tatum’s surge, modest gains that could be just as easily explained by improved wide-open 3-point shooting numbers. Tatum obviously makes his offense better, and other numbers support that, but the ways in which he does so will be tested as defenses adjust to his ascension. Tatum may look the part of a 10-year veteran when he shoots, but he is still very much a novice in the passing department. 

Nowhere has that been more evident than in his struggles to combat double-teams, a defensive tactic he is going to see more often as a response to his development. The sample size remains small for the time being. Boston’s five-headed perimeter monster makes devoting extra effort to Tatum an extremely risky proposition. But on the occasions in which he’s faced hard doubles and traps, he’s proven mostly uncomfortable, seemingly panicking into inaccurate passes. 

Boston is scoring a dreadful 0.857 points per possession when Tatum is trapped in pick-and-roll situations, and while the sample is minuscule, they become even more concerning when you broaden the search parameters a bit. Tatum has run 149 pick-and-rolls this season in which the defense has “committed,” according to Synergy Sports’ numbers, a range of potential defenses spanning those traps to softer doubles like hedges and shows. Boston’s numbers look even worse on such plays, declining to 0.832 points per possession. Of those possessions, 22.1 percent have ended in turnovers for the same general reason. He’s just a bit hasty. 

There’s nothing abnormal about a third-year player reacting uncomfortably to two defenders attacking him at once, but therein lies the nuance of star-level passing. Tatum is reacting to what the defense throws at him. Nirvana for players of his archetype is the ability to anticipate it, to feel the doubles before they come and punish teams for them. 

That is an instinct that takes years to hone. It was Kawhi Leonard’s greatest weakness for years. But now, in his ninth season, it’s a skill that he has mastered. Note the difference in how Kawhi approaches this double. He remains calm, waits for the defense to overextend itself and doesn’t pass for the assist, instead, making the simplest play on the board knowing that his offense will swing the ball around and find a shot out of the ensuing chaos. 

When he feels a guard approach for a double, his response is automatic. He knows exactly where to kick the ball out for an open 3-pointer. 

The numbers Leonard produces against doubles are preposterous. The Clippers score 1.396 points per possession when he faces a hard double in the post, which falls in the 96th percentile league-wide. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of thousands of doubles faced over the course of nearly a decade. It’s only in his ninth year that Leonard has fully unlocked this critical element of his game. That we’re even having the conversation for Tatum in his third is promising. Most third-year players aren’t even good enough to need to know how to handle doubles because they aren’t getting doubled in the first place. 

There is obviously far more to passing than maximizing 4-on-3’s, but not every superstar can be LeBron James. The majority of isolation scorers aren’t, but the best ones have at least managed to weaponize their passing enough to leverage a defense’s commitment to stopping them specifically. They don’t have to create extra points out of passing. They just have to be able to take the ones that defenses are willing to give them. 

That usually translates to a fairly attainable statistical benchmark. Tatum is up to 2.9 assists per game, a number that had been trending slightly upwards prior to the suspension of the season. Leonard is at 5.0 this season. Kobe Bryant averaged 4.7 for his career; Michael Jordan 5.3. Leonard’s assist-to-turnover ratio this season is 1.85. Jordan’s, for his career, is a shade under 2. Tatum is just above 1.3. 

Tatum doesn’t exist in offenses nearly as heliocentric as they did, but he’s also not nearly as developed as they eventually became. Brad Stevens is going to continue devoting more and more of his offense to Tatum if he continues to progress on this trajectory, and while that doesn’t mean he’ll ever need to be an elite passer, numbers in the general range of those above are the bare minimum. They are the result of holding the ball enough to score 30 points per game in the first place. Any player who does so should be able to find five or so easy assists per night. 

And it’s okay that Tatum hasn’t yet. He’s 21-years-old playing in an extremely egalitarian offense. His instincts will sharpen. Boston’s system will shift towards him. But in terms of scoring itself, Tatum has little left to learn. He’s already practically as good as one-on-one shotmakers get. His next step is parlaying that shotmaking of his own into made shots for everyone else. If he manages to figure out how, then those names above won’t be farfetched comparisons in the very near future. 

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