Inside Jayson Tatum’s Evolution Into An Elite Defensive Player

By Matt Esposito

That’s right, I said it. In the midst of his offensive leap forward, some may have not noticed how much of a pest Jayson Tatum has become. Fortunately, highlight God Tomek Kordylewski – a contributor for multiple, reputable Boston Celtics sites – nudged me to bring this development into the light. Specifically, Tomek asked me to uncover how much Tatum has improved on defense since his rookie year.

Tatum’s defensive arc throughout his three year career is not one that began at square one. Rather, he entered the league receiving praise from Brad Stevens, who expressed that the rookie was”beyond his years” and “savvy” as a defender. Despite showing enough defensive prowess to be a starter as a rookie, Tatum was not without flaws. But first, let’s look at the positives.

His first season resulted in a steal percentage in the 67th percentile, a foul percentage in the 65th percentile and an awesome block percentage landing in the 86th percentile for his position (Cleaning the Glass). Additionally, his defense rose to the occasion during the heightened intensity of an Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron James.

Yet, both his foul percentage and block percentage dropped during his sophomore campaign. Why did this regression happen? Tatum was in the midst of a positional shift; one which saw him spend more time as a power forward. Unfortunately, he was simply not physically ready to handle the responsibility of guarding bigger players.

Evidence of this could also be seen during his rookie year. During those first two seasons Celtic fans often saw JT get bullied towards the rim by more veteran, stronger players.

Now, however, he successfully battles against some of the game’s most gifted scorers. Watch him fight off Kawhi Leonard’s attempt to establish post position. Then, check out how he uses his length to contest the shot without overcommitting.

In fact, his strength and length combination is so effective that Stevens can confidently set Tatum on Anthony Davis. It may not look special, but Tatum’s ability to deny Davis paint position and force him to face up is truly impressive.

Tatum also used to struggle with fighting through screens. During his first two years he was often frustrated when bulky screen setters bumped him during the chase.

Now, however, Tatum is the one initiating the physicality. A kinder, superstar whistle (or lack thereof) certainly helps but, watch Tatum disallow the effectiveness of this screen while on route to disrupt a shot.

Early on, Tatum’s wingspan and standing reach were pegged as what could potentially be special defensive tools. Yet, there was a time he did not know how to take advantage of them with any consistency.

Today, he blends those attributes with his feel for the game to jump passing lanes and recover for weak side blocks. Only 18 forwards have ever averaged at least 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks for a season during one of their first three years in the NBA. Tatum is in good company, as that lists includes All-Defensive mainstays like Andrei Kirilenko, Shane Battier and Draymond Green.

Still, it took time to develop this skill. Although he has great lateral quickness, guards could still beat Tatum off the dribble. He did not always know how to recover by weaponizing his length, opting to bump attackers while playing a step behind instead of adjusting for a clean contest.

Today, however, teams know that Tatum is a shot-alterer. He has learned how to avoid fouling and time his block attempts. Andrew Patton of came up with a metric that determines how effective a player is at impacting the opposing team’s shot attempts at the rim.

Check out his single year RAD (SY RAD); a unique stat where a negative value is better than a positive one. Teams attempted 0.62 more at-rim attempts when Tatum was in the game during his rookie year. Now, they attempt a significant 0.93 less paint attempts.

courtest of

While Leonard takes this next attempt in the paint, it comes as he is moving away from the rim and fading backwards. Tatum’s length disrupts Leonard’s handle and Leonard is also unable to bully his way to the hoop. Lastly, the contest forces an airball. This is All-Defensive Team level play, folks.

To boot, speedy, bulldogian guards like Russell Westbrook are starting to get the picture too. Tatum absorbs Westbrook’s arm shove just enough to regain balance and reject the shot. Plays like this make it feasible to think Tatum could actually switch 1-5 one day soon.

The Celtics once more have one of the best defensive teams in the Association. This could be due to Tatum continuing his transformation into a power forward, where he now spends 63 percent of his minutes. When he’s there, Boston places in the 93rd percentile for opponents points per possession with a 51.0 effective field goal percentage.

And remember when scouts said Tatum needed to add weight? Well, we can put those criticisms to bed. This picture of his back tattoo does the talking for us. Remember how his defensive stats dropped during his sophomore year? Take a glimpse at how they rebounded (pun intended.)

courtesy of Cleaning the Glass

Going forward, expect Tatum to garner All-Defensive Team votes and receive that honor sooner rather than later. His drive to become one of the best to ever do it is more palpable than ever, and starting to show itself on the less glamorous end of the court. The rest of the league should be on notice.

BONUS! – For those wanting mor Tatum defensive highlights, check out Tomek’s video!

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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