Top NBA Players 2022-23: #9 Jayson Tatum

Jayson Tatum is number 9 on our list of the best players for the upcoming 2022-2023 season. The Boston Celtics originally traded Markelle Fultz to the Philadelphia 76ers for Tatum and a future Philly first that become Romeo Langford. Tatum has since become one of the best players in the league, and the clear-cut best player on a team that just made the NBA Finals.

Tatum will face immense tests of his on-court talents and leadership abilities this season. The absence of head coach Ime Udoka for at least this season means the Celtics will need to avoid the infighting and players-only meetings that have plagued them in the past. Tatum will need to balance his individual goals with those of his ascending teammate Jaylen Brown. What’s in store for Tatum this season with the Celtics?

Top NBA Players 2022-23: #9 Jayson Tatum

Jayson Tatum’s 2022-2023 Season

Everything seemed calm in Boston just a few weeks ago. Now with Udoka gone and Robert Williams III missing significant early-season time after knee surgery, Tatum has a much larger on-court load to bear. New Celtic Danilo Gallinari tore his ACL during this summer’s Eurobasket tournament, taking away one player who could have eased Tatum’s burden.

Fortunately for Boston, Tatum’s upward trajectory shows no signs of slowing. He’s been Boston’s unquestioned number 1 option on offense the last two seasons and averaged over 26 points per game. Normally the increased responsibility would decrease a player’s efficiency, but he’s increased his two-point shooting percentage over that time. Tatum accomplished this by improving his at-rim finishing numbers. He converted just 59.3% of those shots in 2019-20; that increased to over 68% in each of the past two seasons.

Shifting more ball-handling responsibilities to Marcus Smart has had a positive impact on Tatum’s game. Smart had assists on just over a quarter of Boston’s made baskets while he was on the court, a career-high. Tatum’s decreased playmaking responsibilities let him focus more on his scoring and defense.

Tatum was a key part of Boston’s league-best defense last season. The 6’8” small forward is strong enough to avoid bullying from post-up threats. He can also move well enough laterally to provide resistance against most smaller players’ drives. Among Boston’s regular rotation players, only Williams and Al Horford forced opponents to shoot a lower percentage as defenders.

Jayson Tatum’s Areas of Improvement

Tatum could be named NBA MVP as early as this season, but the 24-year-old is far from a finished product. He needs be more consistent. Tatum has a history of starting his seasons slowly. He had by far his best two- and three-point shooting months in March and April last year. His best months in the oddly-paced 2020-21 season were in April and May. Increased consistency in the beginning of the season would help Boston bank more wins and be less dependent on having a strong late-season run for playoff seeding.

Much like his teammate Brown, Tatum needs to improve ball security. He committed 3.9 turnovers per 100 possessions, the most in his career. With Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, and Derrick White around to handle the ball, Tatum needs to (and should) reduce those turnovers. He occasionally dribbles the ball too high and improving his knee and hip flexibility would enable him to get lower when handling the ball.

Tatum has improved his finishing at the rim, as mentioned above, but the Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors exposed how elite defenses can still affect his layups. The Warriors had Andrew Wiggins as the primary defender with Kevon Looney waiting at the rim. Draymond Green used his preternatural timing to meet Tatum at the rim as well. Tatum could not finish around or through the swarm of defenders. Improving his at-rim finishing and/or foul drawing would give Tatum an effective counter. 

Finally, Tatum can improve his scoring efficiency between the rim and the three-point line. He shot just 37% from midrange and 40.3% from floater range last season. Getting those percentages closer to 42% and 45%, respectively, is a reasonable expectation. Reaching those numbers would help make Tatum an MVP front-runner rather than simply a candidate.

The Last Word on Jayson Tatum

Tatum is a special talent who has established himself as a top-10 player in the league. Still, the versatile small forward only turns 25 in March and has a number of improvements to be made to his game. Boston should make the playoffs again, and Tatum’s performance there will be particularly enlightening. Contrast Tatum with his counterpart in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, Jimmy Butler. Tatum was a steady contributor, and Boston’s best player, but he didn’t reach Butler’s heights. In order for Boston to win a title, Tatum may need to submit his version of Butler’s back-to-back Conference Finals classics, which saw Butler put up 47 and 35 points in Games 6 and 7. Asking for that level of performance from a young player in Tatum feels unfair, but that’s the last step for Tatum to take in his career.