It’s not often that high lottery picks are dark horses in the Rookie of the Year race, but that’s what’s happening with Jayson Tatum.
The Boston Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum third overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, and it sounds asinine to hear about a top-three pick not having the chance to bring home the Rookie of the Year award. That proclamation is not my opinion, but instead Danny Ainge’s, who traded down to select Duke’s superstar freshman.
He relayed those thoughts to the Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe. “We’ll see what minutes [Tatum] will earn,” explained Ainge. “I’m not worried about how they will play when the lights go on. It will be unlikely that Jayson is Rookie of the Year because it will probably come from a team that starts their rookies and plays them 35 minutes per night.”
As we all know, the Celtics’ situation is different. Teams who win 53 games don’t end up in the lottery without some assistance. Former Brooklyn Nets General Manager Billy King orchestrated the worst trade of the decade when he exchanged four picks with Boston for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White. Brooklyn thought they had enough talent to contend. Oh, man, were they wrong. Ainge wound up with outright selections in 2014, 2016 and 2018, and he got the chance to swap with the Nets this past draft. Those classes have produced James Young (17th overall), Jaylen Brown (third overall) and now Tatum, who the Celtics got after trading the first overall pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. (As if that didn’t sting enough, there’s the chance that Boston ends up with Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter, or Luka Doncic next summer.)
Jayson Tatum put together a freshman campaign that had him in the discussion of going first overall. In 29 games with the Blue Devils, the Missouri native averaged 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 45.2 percent from the floor. He got exceptionally hot in the ACC Tournament. Duke won four games in four days to become conference champions, and they did so on the back of Tatum, who put up 22 a game while only resting for a combined total of seven minutes. The workload didn’t hurt, and he maintained radical efficiency, connecting on 68.3 percent of his twos to make up for the forgettable 20 percent clip from three.
A lot of experts pegged Tatum as one of the best scorers in the class. Dennis Smith Jr. (18.1), Malik Monk (19.8) and Markelle Fultz (23.2) were the only other freshmen drafted this year who averaged more points a night than Tatum. Not only did he have the numbers, but the style of play drew even more eyes. Being a mid-range assassin is now an archaic way of playing, but Tatum makes the most of it thanks to his impeccable footwork and length, coupled with excellent athleticism and the innate ability to hit tough shots. He put that on display night in and night out. Once Summer League rolled around, smooth was the appropriate adjective to describe Tatum.
After six total games in Utah and Las Vegas, he scored 18.2 a night while shooting 44.5 percent overall. Tatum glided to the basket with ease, knifing through defenders with a guard-like elusiveness that only forwards of his caliber or greater possess. If the defender stopped him, Tatum could easily play with his back-to-the-basket. The strength of his matchup kind of mattered but also didn’t matter because Tatum’s release is so high that he can fadeaway and still not have his shot obstructed.
As if that weren’t enough, Tatum was an impact player on defense as well, and that says a lot given how mediocre Duke was on that end. He averaged 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks, putting him next to Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac and Fultz as the only Power Five rookies to have at least one a night in both categories. It’s going to take some time to see that ability properly translate to the NBA, but you can never have a surplus of long, athletic wings who can seamlessly transition between three or four positions.
Jayson Tatum is going to be solid. And Danny Ainge knows that. However, the Celtics are competing for a championship. Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are going to monopolize most of the minutes at the three and possibly even the four. That’s why Ainge doesn’t see his rookie in the Rookie of the Year race. There are also guys like Kyrie Irving and Al Horford who, even if they share the court with Tatum, are going to be responsible for creating a lot of the offense.
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Brown averaged 17.2 minutes last year and was still a big piece of Boston’s rotation — what limited him more than anything was himself. Outside of perimeter defense, the Celtics didn’t get much from the former Golden Bear. Tatum’s limited in a different way. The impact on defense wouldn’t equal the offense, and Brad Stevens is at a point where he doesn’t need to deploy guys who are potentially detrimental to the team. Tatum won’t have the worst impact, but he also wouldn’t have the biggest, and we award the Rookie of the Year to the most productive player (who also manages to play more than 31 games).
There is a slew of rookies who are going to see ample playing time as their team’s first option. My first thought is Lonzo Ball, who’s going to be the puppeteer of the Los Angeles Lakers offense. Whether you think Ball is the better player is up to you. The reason he’ll garner more votes is that any success the Lakers have will get traced back to him since he’s their leader. Next, we have Ben Simmons. He, like Lonzo, is going to be the conductor of the Sixers’ offense, but Fultz, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric and others are going to impact his scoring. Regardless of the weapons, Simmons will spend a good portion of the season on triple-double watch, and Brett Brown has been adamant about making him their point guard. Simmons working at the one means more of Markelle Fultz away from the ball, and Philadelphia is in a rare spot where two guys are going to be in the ROY race.
Fultz was the best freshman in college hoops last year. Unfortunately, Washington was terrible. By default, he had to do everything, but that also showed that the only real hole in Fultz’s game was his selfishness — or lack thereof. He averaged 5.9 assists a night on a team where he shouldn’t have been passing the ball that often. With Philly, he’ll be playing to his strengths and might lead all rookies in scoring.
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This list can go on and on. I didn’t talk about Dennis Smith Jr., Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox or any other big-name lottery pick, and they also have a legitimate shot at bringing home the award. On paper, the talent we have in this award race blows 2017 out of the water. If Tatum doesn’t get any votes, it wouldn’t be a shock, and I don’t think he’d mind because he’d be in the playoffs matching up across from LeBron James. However, if he does land on the list, no one would be surprised.
Jayson Tatum is one of the most talented players in his class, and it’s not his fault he landed in a weird situation that might take away some individual accolades. He didn’t ask for Boston to sign Hayward, but backing up one of the NBA’s 20-best players isn’t a bad gig, and he doesn’t have any of the same expectations as his contemporaries.
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