By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A wonderful rookie season continued for Jayson Tatum on Monday night, as the Celtics forward hit a big milestone out in Phoenix.
Tatum led the Celtics with 23 points in their 102-94 win over the Suns, winning his rookie vs. rookie showdown with Phoenix’s Josh Jackson, who also finished with 23 points on the night. In doing so, Tatum became just the ninth rookie in Celtics history to score 1,000 or more points in his debut season (1,013 points in 74 games — and counting). He’s the first C’s rookie to accomplish the feat since Ron Mercer dropped 1,221 points in the 1997-98 season.
It’s not that Celtics fans need much more reason to get amped up about Tatum, but a Ron Mercer comparison isn’t going to move the needle much further. So how about this one: Tatum is up to 10 games with 20 or more points this season, the first Celtics rookie to hit that mark since … wait for it …. Paul Pierce.
On the night he went toe-to-toe with the man selected after him (and the night No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz making his long-awaited NBA debut), Tatum hit 10 of his 18 shots from the floor while chipping in with six rebounds and a pair of steals. He’s upped his season totals to 13.7 points off 48 percent shooting and 5.1 rebounds per game. Along with Terry Rozier, Tatum is the only player on the Celtics roster to appear in all 74 games this season.
“In my eyes, that’s the rookie of the year,” Celtics forward Al Horford said of Tatum after Monday’s win.
Yes, Horford is a tad bit biased. And Tatum won’t be bringing home that hardware in June, not with Ben Simmons doing just about everything for the playoff-bound Sixers (averaging 15.8/8/8 for the season) and Donovan Mitchell’s offensive attack (averaging 20.3 points per game) planting Utah in the thick of a tight Western Conference playoff race. But Boston’s 20-year-old rook is making a strong case with some stellar play as of late, averaging 18.8 points over the last five games without Kyrie Irving drawing defensive attention away from him, helping the Celtics to a 4-1 record in that stretch. He’s shooting 50 percent for the month of March, and though his long-range attack has fallen off a tick after his red-hot start, Tatum is still knocking down an impressive 43 percent of his bids from three-point land.
Tatum was thrust into a bigger role on opening night when Gordon Hayward went down, and he’s risen to the occasion much more times than he’s failed. There have been rookie bumps along the way and he still has a few things to learn, which was to be expected with a teenager heading into his first pro season. But he’s evolved in little ways throughout, first proving that he’s a viable threat from deep (after shooting just 34 percent in his one season at Duke) and now showing that he can, indeed, throw down a dunk without the ball flying into the fifth row. In the process, he’s not only made Danny Ainge look like a genius of a mad scientist for his pre-draft trade of the No. 1 selection, but helped the Celtics contend for the top spot in the East despite being plagued by some key injuries.
Just as it seemed that Tatum was hitting that proverbial rookie wall, he’s run through it to play some of his best ball when the Celtics have needed him most. Boston’s success in the playoffs will ultimately come down to the health of Irving, but they should be feeling pretty great about their future with Tatum as a big piece of the puzzle.