Something clicked in Jayson Tatum on January 30. There's nothing special about that date, really; it's the second-to-last day of the month, and is the day bell chimes were apparently invented. It's also the day on the NBA calendar when the full All-Star teams are announced. For the first time in his career, Tatum's name was on that short list. In a recent interview with The Athletic, Brad Wanamaker said that honor is when everything changed for Tatum.
Looking at the numbers, it's hard to argue that he's wrong. Since Tatum was graced with the All-Star label, he's been on an absolute tear with one star-level performance after another as he edges closer to becoming a superstar. In the 12 games the Celtics have played after that date, Tatum has averaged 29.6 points per game on over 50 percent shooting from the field, including 46 percent from deep on over eight attempts per game. Just look at the numbers from his last three matchups:
Now, 12 games is not a large sample size in the grand scheme of a regular season plus the playoffs, but it's not like we're talking about a stretch of three or four games with cupcake opponents. Tatum has done this over the course of just under a month, including a break in the middle for All-Star festivities. He's had one stinker-- a 15-point effort in a loss against Houston where he went 0-for-7 from three and ended up with a net rating of -11 on the night-- but otherwise has been essentially impeccable on the floor.
Tatum's recent explosion has been helped by the absence of Kemba Walker, who has struggled to recover from a knee issue since returning from the break. But the rest of the Celtics are deferring to Tatum, and he's proving he can shoulder the load. The definition of a star is wide-ranging and the parameters change depending on who you ask, but two of the few tried-and-true indicators is how a player responds when they have to be The Guy and the defense turns all its attention in your direction.
Tatum has proven he can be The Guy, as he's powered Boston to two wins in three games without Walker. He's also a priority for opposing defenses, something he has never faced before, even during his breakout 2018 playoff campaign. The Lakers are one of the best defensive teams in the league and were doubling Tatum on pick-and-rolls last Sunday when things got tight in the fourth quarter. The Trailblazers and Jazz did the same thing in the following two games; they didn't blitz Tatum as frequently as the Lakers did in the final 12 minutes, but they did it regularly over the course of a full game. Yet Tatum kept his cool and still dropped 36 and 33 points, respectively, on Portland and Utah while shooting over 60 percent from the field in both contests.
Tatum will need to keep doing this in the waning days of the regular season and especially the playoffs if he wants "is Jayson Tatum a superstar?" to be the question that dominates the NBA offseason heading into next year. But he checks just about every box-- efficient shot selection, highlight-reel step-back threes, and an uncanny ability to slither around defenders in the paint. He could draw more free throws, but when he shoots 14-of-22 from the floor as he did on Tuesday night, that doesn't matter nearly as much.
The biggest test for Tatum will come when he hits a cold streak while shooting. He's already shown this year he can make a positive impact for Boston when his shots aren't falling thanks to his activity on the defensive end, but the true mark of a superstar is dominating the game even when it feels like there's a lid on the basket. Tatum has already overcome impressive hurdles for a 21-year-old. The next will be his biggest-- making the jump from star to superstar.