Celtics superstar forward Jayson Tatum is coming off the best year of his young career but falling two wins shy of a championship left him hungry to take another step forward.
“I didn’t feel like talking to anybody. Didn’t feel like being bothered. It’s hard to explain if you have never been in that situation, but losing a championship was f—ing miserable,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix in a feature coming into the new season.
On a team level, Tatum has already been to the Eastern Conference Finals three times in five seasons, finally getting over the hump to reach the NBA Finals last year. On an individual level, Tatum has already made three All-Star teams and two All-NBA teams, starting in last year’s All-Star Game while also making his All-NBA First Team debut.
As a 24-year-old with a resume like that, there are only two things left to accomplish if you’re going to take another leap — winning Most Valuable Player and an NBA championship.
The Celtics entered the 2022-23 season as title favorites and right on time, motivated by last year’s shortcomings, Tatum has ascended into a legitimate MVP candidate.
How Jayson Tatum has evolved into an MVP candidate
Through the first 17 games of the season, Boston has the best record in the NBA and Tatum is averaging 30.2 points per game with a 62.2 true shooting percentage — both of which are career-highs.
Tatum went into the offseason with a hyperfocus on being stronger with the ball, finishing through contact at the rim and getting to the foul line, and shoring up those weaknesses has turned an already-elite scorer into a near-unstoppable one.
He is averaging career-highs in points in the paint (10.6) and free throw attempts (8.5) per game while scoring with career-best efficiency in the restricted area and in the key.
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The 6-10, 210-pound forward has clearly realized how physically imposing he can be on drives but his growth in these areas is far from just using his frame to barrel himself to the rim. Prior to this season, Tatum had a history of driving into traffic without a plan, settling for bad shots or forcing something that wasn’t there, resulting in a turnover.
This year, Tatum has been much more patient with his attacks, playing with better pace and body control to finish at the basket.
His handle looks quicker and tighter, adding even more shake to his game to create separation on jumpers or beat his opponent off the dribble and get to the rim.
And he’s done a terrific job of keeping opposing defenses guessing by adding a feathery floater to his bag — a lethal shot that he practiced religiously over the offseason. Tatum has seemingly already perfected the touch on his newest weapon, even able to get the teardrop floater to fall in the heaviest paint traffic.
His maturation as a scorer has been beautiful to watch this season, but his improvement on the defensive end has been equally impressive. Shutting down Kevin Durant in the first round of the 2022 NBA Playoffs felt like his coming out party as an elite defender, but Tatum has developed into one of the best two-way threats in the NBA today, using all of his near-7-foot wingspan to become extremely disruptive on and off-ball
Tatum is averaging a career-high 1.2 blocks per game and his 21 total blocks are on par with some of the league’s best rim protectors like Jarrett Allen (20 blocks), Joel Embiid (21), Rudy Gobert (22) and Evan Mobley (23).
He’s already come up with several clutch stops late in games this season and even though the Celtics’ defense hasn’t been as impenetrable as last year’s (with Robert Williams III yet to take the floor), Tatum has still taken on much more responsibility in guarding opposing team’s best scoring forwards like you typically see from great two-way stars like Kawhi Leonard.
From the moment his breakout rookie season concluded, it was clear that Tatum had the potential to be one of the best players in the NBA at some point. He began to flirt with top-five discussions during last year’s postseason but a rough outing in the Finals seemed to have knocked him down a peg.
He used that failure as fuel this offseason and as the catalyst of Boston’s league-best record early on, Tatum has cemented himself in the 2023 MVP race as the Celtics look to get back to the NBA Finals stage.