By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The NBA season is barely a week old, but it’s been a wild ride for Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum.
The No. 3 overall pick last June was thrust into the starting lineup for Boston’s opener last Tuesday due to Marcus Morris’ lingering knee injury. He looked every bit of a 19-year-old making his professional debut in the opening minutes of his career, highlighted by his first-ever shot being blocked from behind by LeBron James.
Debuting against James and the defending Eastern Conference champs, for a team with conference title aspirations of their own, is not an easy task. Mix in a devastating injury to Gordon Hayward, which noticeably shook the team for much of their first contest, and that debut for Tatum was anything but ordinary.
The rookie shook off those early jitters and put together a solid debut in the season-opening loss to the Cavaliers, dropping 14 points and 10 rebounds. Tatum followed that up the next night in the Celtics’ home opener with eight points and nine rebounds in a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, and poured in 15 points to go with eight rebounds in Boston’s first win of the season Friday night in Philadelphia.
What stands out more than his points or rebounds is Tatum’s minutes played. He’s averaged 35 minutes per game, second only to Kyrie Irving’s 38 minutes, a workload that isn’t usually given (or earned) by a teenager still grasping life as an NBA player. But with Hayward’s devastating injury hitting the Celtics just five minutes into their season, Brad Stevens has had no choice but to send his young forward out to learn on the fly.
Given Tatum’s heavy workload over the first week of his career, it’s hard to fault the kid for taking a bit of a breather when given an off day on Sunday. Like most 19 year-olds still enjoying life on a campus somewhere, Tatum caught up on some much needed Zs.
“I slept a lot. It was just nice having a day off,” Tatum told reporters at the C’s practice facility on Monday.
Hopefully Tatum got all the rest he needed, because the Celtics are counting on him to help fill the void left by Hayward’s injury for another 79-plus games. Along with Jaylen Brown (who turns 21 on Tuesday), Tatum is Boston’s young core of the future. With their free agent prize shooting basketballs from a chair and not beyond the arc, that future is now for the Celtics.
The best news for the Celtics is that Brown already looks like he’s taking a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 after struggling to find minutes as a rookie last season. He’s taken his role as a starter in 2017 and is running (and gliding through the air) with it, and the same can be said for Tatum. Just three games into his career, Tatum is showing that he already has a pretty good understanding of what life in the NBA is like both on and off the court.
His first lesson came quick, and is one he’ll never forget: Always be ready.
“I didn’t think I would play that much a game, but things happen and you have to be ready,” said Tatum “It’s slowing down for a me a little bit, each and every day. I’m getting more comfortable.”
The travel and rigors of an 82-game season, however, are challenges he’s still getting used to. With the Celtics starting the season with a back-to-back, on the road in Cleveland and then home against the Bucks the next night, he got an early feel for that road ahead.
“I thought we had the day off [on Thursday] and I woke up and we had to fly to Philly. Oh my God, I just wanted the day off,” he joked.
Travel aside, Tatum has made things look easy at times. He’s had very little difficulty getting his shot off (minus his first one, of course), averaging 12.3 points off of 41 percent shooting from the floor. He’s leading the Celtics with nine rebounds per game, and on Friday, he showed off some defense with three blocks against the 76ers. There are still plenty of growing pains for Tatum and they will likely come in bunches as opposing teams start to pay more attention to him. As one of the current focal points of the Boston offense, he’s bound to see more double teams and will have to use those to get his teammates open looks. That was his biggest flaw in college, one of the few downsides to an otherwise NBA-ready offensive game, and something he’ll have to learn on the fly given Boston’s current roster situation.
Tatum’s workload will likely decrease when Morris makes his Boston debut, which the veteran is hoping comes as early as next Monday. Even if he’s relegated to the bench, the Celtics will still rely heavily on Tatum to perform like a 10-year veteran and not a 19-year-old rookie.
After just three games, they should feel confident that he’s up to the challenge.