At various points Tuesday night during Boston’s streaky victory over Brooklyn, 19-year-old Jayson Tatum did not look his age.
As the cameras showed the breadth of the floor, the rookie caught a pass at the top, weighed the defence before executing a misdirection, head fake and high finish off the glass.
Earlier, Tatum was reading the way Kyrie Irving cut to the paint, so stepped up on the wing two paces before receiving the ball, dribbling to his right and canning a three.
The YES Network broadcast team of Ian Eagle and Sarah Kustok marvelled over the youngster’s poise and as those same cameras focused on Tatum toward the sideline, he was even digesting his own play like a wise veteran.
I thought about Tatum’s presence. He understands scoring situations, never playing as if the game is too quick for him, showcasing control and a smoothness. 19, you say?
Two years his senior, Jaylen Brown is his favourite partner. After an impressive rookie season, Brown has been even more up in the face of his opponents, implementing his love of chess onto the defensive end of a basketball court; how do I make it checkmate every time down?
On the first Celtics scoring play of this game, Brown set a down screen for Tatum, who popped out and drained the three while simultaneously erasing the word ‘hesitation’ from his vocabulary.
Brown combines his able screen-setting with attentiveness inside, barraging through opponents in a style opposing Tatum’s, still prone to turnovers as his skillset catches up to his athleticism. Brown doesn’t let that inhibit his confidence, evident by his relentless shooting and driving.
Together, and behind the tutelage of Irving, this team has won 13 games in a row. GM Danny Ainge has worked his butt off - and outsmarted every front office in the league - to place Boston’s future in front of us, four years after they pulled off a trade the likes of which we’ll never see again.
How we got here
“Today, the basketball gods smiled on the Nets.”
That was Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov in the summer of 2013 after his team acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and D.J. White from Boston in exchange for players that included Keith Bogans and Gerald Wallace.
I can confirm two things. One, those guys are no longer with the Celtics. Two, the gods weren’t smiling on Brooklyn in the slightest. On the other side of this trade, Ainge had a grin as wide as his list of draft options, because included in the deal were 2014, 2016 and 2018 unprotected first round selections and the right to swap their 2017 pick with the Nets.
Prokhorov, uneducated in the NBA and its business, was dealing in names, not age or sense. Garnett was 37 at the time and is now retired. Pierce was 36 at the time and is now, uh, retired.
The Nets made the playoffs two consecutive seasons then bottomed out, allowing Boston to first select Brown at number three in the 2016 draft and then Tatum last summer at number three.
The Nets were so bad last season that the Celtics had the first pick overall last June; Ainge was savvy enough to trade down to three, still get his guy and snag a future first rounder, which will convey in either 2018 or 2019. He did this, importantly, with full backing from the front office.
Teams simply don’t put unprotected picks into trades these days and yet here the Celtics were staring at four. With all of those assets piled up they tried to bring in Paul George and Jimmy Butler at different times, but when it came to actually utilising one of them to swing a trade, they sent it to Cleveland to acquire Kyrie Irving.
Brad Stevens, a marvellous coach who gets the best out of players - see Marcus Morris and Daniel Theis - has been given all the necessary proponents for his desired system.
Tatum and Brown text each other regularly, even though the former complains that Brown doesn’t respond quick enough. They wear white headbands in shootarounds before discarding them for game time, both admire Kobe Bryant’s game and are conveniently really talented basketball players.
Brown averaged 14.6 points and 5.4 rebounds as a true freshman for the University of California-Berkeley, a school he paid to visit having already used up all five of his official college trips.
He quickly passed on his remaining college eligibility after Cal were knocked out in the first round of the national tournament. Named the 2016 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, he wowed scouts with his ‘NBA-ready’ body. Wouldn’t we all love one of those.
While in New York for the draft last year, Brown visited the Marshall Chess Club and went up against nine-year-old national champion Nico Chasin to get himself ready. He drinks mango smoothies on tap and his personality screams ‘ready’ over ‘nervous’.
When his now teammate Tatum talked about his experience in this year’s draft, there was no chess game to precede the event, one he called “the best night” of his life.
Brown responded: “That’s cute. Really cute.”
Tatum averaged 16.8 points and 7.3 rebounds in 29 games for Duke, and Ainge knew he wanted him immediately. He wasn’t sold on Markelle Fultz and knew he could get Tatum at three, and because of this up-to-speed scouting they’ve landed the best player in this class and yet another pick to work with for a team that look like the organisation to beat in the East over the next five to seven years.
Smoothies and chess out of the running, you know what Brown and Tatum have in common, don’t you?
Both have seven-foot wingspans that combine to create a concoction of spirit, confidence and primetime, which all contradict their combined 40 years on planet earth. Perhaps Euro League is set in a different world and they’ve gained experience there? Certainly looks that way.
Fitting, then, that they’re both on the same team and it’s back to the Barclays Center for this week’s game of choice. In the opening period, Brown was eyeing ball handler Quincy Acy while guarding Caris LeVert, and as soon as the pass came to his side he jumped into the lane to steal it, shot up the other end before landing a contest-type slam.
Brown stays in front of his man and uses his length and strength to contain opponents, a scrappy player in the post on both ends. Picking up two early fouls in this game, Stevens left him in to finish the first quarter, pointing to that early trust.
Tatum sparked the Celtics on the offensive end early and is very intelligent when it comes to screwing with whoever is guarding him. Having previously taken DeMarre Carroll off the dribble, the next time he caught the ball at the top he calmly waited for an Al Horford screen, faking to use it and instead going the other way. His big-strided two dribbbles got him to the basket before he rose high to finish, another strong trait of his being that high release point, which is very difficult to block.
Tatum, who says he’s patterned his game on Paul George, always looks in control. For an NBA game to not look quick for a man this young is remarkable.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, he had misdirected opponents so much that increased patience on the ball worked wonders. With two minutes remaining, he set a pick for Irving before getting the ball back and facing up against Trevor Booker. He drove left and as Carroll came to double team from the corner, Tatum span back toward the basket and pounced toward the rim before Booker had any chance of halting his path.
“His poise just jumps off the screen at you”, Kustok of the YES Network said.
She’s right. Tatum understands the situation. His length affects the defensive end, too, most notably near the end of the 109-102 victory when he prowled around the free throw line before jumping out to block an Acy three-point attempt. Skillfully hiding his presence before lunging out, he wasn’t done.
With less than 10 seconds to play and a nine-point lead, he had an open court inviting him to take it down for an easy two but instead he slowed right up, baiting Acy to foul him, which is exactly what happened. What a smart player.
The Nets had opened the fourth quarter on a 10-2 run while Irving, Brown and Tatum sat on the bench, but the starters came back in to sure things up. Gordon Hayward’s injury has obviously shifted the rotation, but how many people thought Brown and Tatum would be playing this regularly this early, tasked with going back in and closing a game out?
Despite being the older of the two, Brown still has moments where he’s moving so fast his brain can’t calculate what basketball move he wants to perform. He forces the issue more than Tatum and his play looks a little less within the offensive flow that Stevens sets out to achieve.
On the other hand, Brown’s aggressiveness draws the big assignments, seen in Boston’s victory over Toronto when he prevented DeMar DeRozan scoring on the final play of the game to seal a 95-94 win.
Tying it all together
The metaphor for this exciting new team came late in Brooklyn. Al Horford, a man not featuring in this piece but no less important when it comes to the Celtics machine, was scrapping for the ball underneath his own basket with Booker and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Irving was another member of the huddle and eventually came up with it, knowing in an instant that his two young stars were off and running. He set off, executing a dribble move at half court before shooting an overhead pass to Brown, who was already locking in on Tatum.
The teenager’s sat nav was steering him right to the basket. Brown threw it up and Tatum slammed it home, kickstarting roars from the travelling bench and dropping a cap of ice on the game.
What a sequence that was. A 25-year-old Irving (his seventh year in the league makes him seem much older), 21-year-old Brown and 19-year-old Tatum laid the smackdown on Brooklyn and proved again how well they’ve slotted in next to each other. It’s been ridiculously seamless.
Last few points on Tatum. There’s a satisfying floatiness to his game. His eyes survey the court on defence and he moves across it efficiently. The LeBron James fixation on Irving has allowed the teen to grow freely, and the point guard’s cuts are opening up the floor for ‘Jaywatch’.
At one point in the Nets game, Tatum was asking an official why he didn’t get a foul call on an earlier jump shot, but it was posed in a learning manner, not an aggressive one. Next time he’d be ready.
As for Brown, he has the potential to be a Jimmy Butler-type, but one who can learn at a faster pace if he improves his shooting accuracy and dribbling ability.
If you’ve somehow read all of this and decided to tweet that Tatum and Brown ‘are very good’, you might get a response such as ‘welcome to the party!’
Except, of course, they can’t be that good because I don’t know who their dad’s are...