Following a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the middle of last season, Jayson Tatum talked about how important it is for his development to get to the free throw line.
"The type of player I want to be, all the guys that score 20-25 a night shoot at least eight free throws a game," the Boston Celtics forward said. "That's the way to get points. So you've got to learn to insert that to your game."
The problem? Tatum has yet to insert that into his game.
Through two seasons with the Celtics, Tatum has attempted eight or more free throws only 12 times, one of the more recent coming in that matchup with the Cavaliers in the middle of last season. Even more concerning is he got to the line less as a sophomore despite playing more minutes. Whereas Tatum's free throw rate (FTr) was .309 as a rookie, it stood at .220 last season, meaning he attempted a free throw every five field goal attempts.
According to Basketball Reference, Tatum was one of 23 forwards to average at least 10 points per game with that low of a FTr last season, some of the others being Jae Crowder, Nikola Mirotic and Robert Covington. While they are each valuable players in the NBA, they're mostly specialists, not players who were drafted for their superstar upside.
Shot selection played a big role in Tatum getting to the free throw line at a lower rate last season.
As a rookie, Tatum had the type of shot profile you'd expect to see from a wing in today's NBA, with close to two-thirds of his field goal attempts coming at the rim or the 3-point line. He was at his best in the playoffs when he stepped up in place of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward as Boston's go-to scorer. He attacked the basket with even more aggression, punctuated by him dunking on LeBron James in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
A slightly higher percentage of Tatum's field goal attempts came from the 3-point line this past season - another encouraging sign for his long-term development - but he turned more of his drives to the rim into midrange pull-ups.
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Tatum has the size and skill to be a dominant midrange scorer, and yet he and the Celtics would benefit from being more selective with those shots moving forward. It's not hard to find possessions from last season of him settling for a tough step back or turnaround instead of attacking the basket, even when he had a step on his defender.
For example, notice how Tatum had a direct lane to the basket here after crossing up Jabari Parker:
Rather than attacking the basket, he took a step towards the sideline and attempted a long 2-pointer that Parker was able to contest.
There's another part of Tatum's game that suffered from his midrange-heavy ways last season - his passing.
Had he driven to the basket on that possession against the Bulls, there's a good chance that Chicago's centre, Wendell Carter Jr., would've been in position to contest his shot at the rim. However, not only would that have given Tatum an opportunity to draw a foul, it would've drawn at least two defenders in the paint, leaving one of Terry Rozier or Al Horford unguarded on the perimeter.
Tatum rarely creates those types of shots for his teammates. According to NBA.com, he passed the ball on 33.6 percent of his drives last season, the eighth-highest rate on the Celtics. It contributed to him averaging only 2.1 assists per game.
Again, the combination of his points (15.7) and assists (2.1) didn't put Tatum in the type of company you'd expect from a forward with his potential. In addition to Crowder, Mirotic and Covington, the list last season included the likes of Jerami Grant, Marcus Morris and Harrison Barnes, players who are tertiary options on a winning team at best.
"I think that the more we can get him attacking the basket, I think the more he's a threat of going to the free-throw line, the more a threat of drawing multiple defenders for kick-outs, and I just think that opens up everything for everybody," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Tatum in November of last season.
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In his defence, Tatum did show signs of improvement as the 2018-19 season progressed. He reigned in the midrange jumpers, strung together games in which he got to the free throw line at a higher rate and increased his assists per game from 1.9 to 2.8 after the All-Star break. The next step is for him to do all of that more consistently.
It's going to be even more important next season, as Tatum is expected to take on a bigger role following the departure of Irving and Al Horford. Kemba Walker, who the Celtics signed to replace Irving, will soften some of the blow of losing two All-NBA calibre players in one offseason, but Boston will need Tatum to step up to maintain its place at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Tatum is setting high expectations for himself, too.
"I'm going to average over 20 [points per game]," Tatum responded to his NBA 2K rating, which was lower than he expected. "All-Star. And the Celtics are going to the championship."
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