Remember when selecting Jayson Tatum, with the third overall pick was considered to be a questionable move? Well it looks like the Celtics will be getting the last laugh here.
However, Danny Ainge and his subordinates did not see it as such. This gaggle of pencil-pushing NBA brainiacs had chosen their man long before the night of the draft.
Just four days before the 2017 Draft, Boston made a loaded move, by exchanging the first overall pick for the ostensibly less valuable third overall pick (and a protected future selection). This seemed like quite the gamble.
Believe it or not, the Philadelphia 76ers were happily bamboozled by this myopic proposal. Trust the process, right?
Boston sold high, knowing the real mathematical value of their hand. The Celtics were excoriated, at the time, for this supposedly foolish trade.
After all, why have the third best player, when you could have the BEST player? As it turns out, the C’s would walk away from the 2017 NBA Draft with the best player - Jayson Tatum.
Their victory flag slowly unfurled in the post-draft turbulence. Despite unrelenting criticism, the Celtics maintained that they had made the right move.
One would hear expedient hot takes like “Jayson Tatum makes no sense.” Or “This was just stupid.” The jabs go on. But while the misguided firestorm whirled, there were a few beacons of great NBA experience who stood by the controversial move.
Danny Ainge did, of course. He was the one on the hottest seat of them all. And so did Brad Stevens. But dry paint is a basketball prodigy in this guru's eyes. Stevens may actually believe that any breathing human with limbs can be developed into the next Larry Bird.
The most encouraging of the Jayson Tatum defenders, around the start of the 2017-18 season, was none other than “the Truth” himself: Paul Pierce.
“He looks like an older version of me” Pierce commented, upon absorbing Tatum's approach to the game. He added that Tatum's “mentality” will dictate his ceiling. “The sky is the limit for that kid.”
What better endorsement can you get?
The ambitious comparison has since propagated the world of basketball. As it should have! It's appears to be pretty accurate.
The Eye Test
Jayson Tatum brings a portmanteau chock full of old-school forward attributes onto the court.
Rather than haphazardly driving towards the bucket, he uses his body and his pass-first nature to eviscerate defenses.
Tatum throws his shoulders around like they're melee weapons. His serrated finesse can be leveraged to knock down fadeaways or to cut through the paint with an insurmountable step ahead of defenders.
This is exactly how Paul Pierce played basketball, especially when he was younger.
Now that we have a more complete sample size - 19 games - let's see how the comparison holds up. Is there any Truth to Jayson Tatum's game?
Growing up Fast
Jayson Tatum was acquired through a twisted labyrinth of trade stipulations and boldfaced bluffing. At first he was the mangy runt of the draft that Celtics fans didn't want.
Nonetheless, Tatum has proven to be the real deal, so far.
He was drafted by a Celtics team that was by no means “rebuilding”. This was supposed to be the inaugural season for, newly obtained superstars, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
Boston was an Eastern Conference favorite, even before they selected Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick.
When Paul Pierce was drafted, in 1998, this franchise was at a much more desperate intersection.
Boston, with Rick Pitino at the helm, had gone 36-46, the year prior. In 1998 they finished 6th in the Atlantic Division - yuck! Even as a rookie, Pierce was expected to see around 40 minutes per game, for the despairing 1999 Celtics.
That's a lot of ice time for a newbie.
It was all but preordained that Jayson Tatum would be playing in a much more limited and developmental capacity than Paul Pierce was, during his first year.
But the absence of Gordon Hayward has allowed Tatum to approach Paul Pierce's rookie numbers and minutes. The juxtaposition is already far more reasonable than anyone would have expected. And it becomes more uncanny with each passing game.
Paul Pierce was a starter in every contest through the first 19 games of the 1998-99 season. He averaged 31.8 MPG and produced 16.1 PPG coupled with 6.1 RPG.
Not too shabby!
Comparisons aside, Jayson Tatum has already made a huge contribution to the 2018 Celtics. Brad Stevens has tried to keep him on a healthily short leash, but the kid’s talent cannot be suppressed.
Tatum is playing an impressive 30.5 MPG. He's been able to post 14.2 PPG and he has been a pivotal rebounder for the C’s. Jayson grabs about 6 boards per game (5.9 to be exact).
But here is what polishes all of the abstractions to be made from the statistics: Tatum has been taking significantly less shots than 1999 Paul Pierce, at this juncture in his rookie season.
Where Pierce was shooting 12.8 FG’s per game, Tatum is only averaging 9.4 FG attempts, through his first 19 games.
If Tatum was allowed to shoot the ball as prolifically as Pierce did in 1998-99, he would be outscoring “the Truth” by 3.2 PPG.
Bear in mind we're prematurely comparing a rookie to one of the greatest Celtics players of all-time. Still, the lack of disparity, in the early statistics, should be extremely heartening for fans to see.
As Paul Pierce said, regarding Tatum's potential, his mentality is the only invisible obstacle in his way. For the time being, the Celtics should relish watching their underestimated rookie crystalize into a featured NBA player.
How's that third pick looking now, Boston?
Photo: (Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports)