NEW YORK – How can a 20-year-old be this good at basketball?
Jayson Tatum is incomparable.
Boston’s second-year forward has followed up a historic postseason run with an electric start to the 2018-19 season, one that was buoyed by Saturday night’s dominance at Madison Square Garden. Tatum recorded the most impressive stat line of his career, a monster double-double that consisted of 24 points and a career-best 14 rebounds, to lead Boston to a 103-101 win over the New York Knicks.
Tatum scored six of his points during the final minute of the game to seal Boston’s victory. First came a resounding slam dunk, and then came a tantalizing fadeaway jumper after Tatum summoned his inner Kobe Bryant.
Tatum idolized Kobe while growing up, and he trained with him this past offseason. He may be only 20 years of age, but the youngster is already eliciting comparisons to the greatness of his idol.
Said teammate Marcus Morris, “He’s carving his name into this league.”
Many saw this greatness budding last postseason, when Tatum averaged 18.5 points per game to lead the Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The scary thing is that through three games, he has been significantly more dominant than he was during that run.
Tatum carries averages of 21.0 points and 10.7 rebounds per game into the second week of the NBA season. His scoring average is up 7.1 PPG over last season’s, and his rebounding average has more than doubled from last season’s average of 5.0 RPG.
And perhaps most noteworthy, as the Knicks learned Saturday night, Tatum is already finding comfort in the tightest moments the NBA has to offer.
“A lot more comfortable than I would have last year,” he said of his poise during Saturday’s crunch time. “I think it just gets easier with time as you play more games.”
It really couldn’t look much easier for a guy his age.
Tatum is playing with great efficiency at the offensive end of the court, but as an added bonus, he has given Boston a sizable boost in the rebounding department this season. Tatum has hauled in at least nine rebounds during all three of Boston’s games, highlighted by his 14 boards Saturday night. In comparison, he grabbed nine or more rebounds only six times all of last season. Tatum currently leads the team, and by a wide margin, with his average of 10.7 rebounds per game.
He pointed out that such numbers are by no means a coincidence.
“That’s just been a big focus,” he told Celtics.com of his rebounding. “Sometimes we play small, so everybody has to rebound. Just trying to be better than I was last year, especially at that.”
Tatum elaborated on how, exactly, he has become such a prominent force on the glass.
“Not leaking out as much, just trying to be more aggressive,” he said. “(Aron) Baynes and Al (Horford) do a great job of boxing out the big guys, so I just come in and grab the ball.”
Credit Danny Ainge and his staff for seeing this type of rebounding potential in Tatum’s game well before the C’s selected him with the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Brad Stevens commented Saturday night that Ainge regularly highlighted Tatum’s defensive rebounding ability during the evaluation process.
Fast-forward to 16 months after Boston hit its home run on Draft night, and Tatum is not only the team’s best rebounder, but he also currently stands as the team’s most prolific scorer.
In the history of the NBA, how many second-year 20-year-olds on championship contenders have been able to make such claims?
It’s still very early, but Tatum may very well wind up on that list all by himself.