Oftentimes with young up-and-comers, fans are quick to crown them as the next big thing. While those players usually reach their potential and become the stars people expect them to be, sometimes high expectations are met only with disappointment. Enter 22-year-old Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum.
From the moment Boston traded down from the first to third overall pick in 2017, all eyes were on No. 3 Tatum — and why wouldn’t they be? A versatile scorer coming out of Duke playing for one of the marquee franchises in the NBA is must-see TV. In his rookie season, Tatum averaged five rebounds and almost 14 points while shooting a scorching 43% from 3, good for eighth in the NBA that season.
While those numbers are not overwhelmingly astonishing for a rookie, the first glimpses of Tatum’s potential superstardom came in the 2018 playoffs, where he became the first rookie to log 10 games of more than 20 points in a single postseason since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1970. In the playoffs that year, Tatum increased his scoring significantly, going from 14 to almost 19 points per game and bringing the Boston Celtics to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Tatum’s second season is when doubt began to set in. After an impressive playoff run in his first year in the NBA, fans expected Tatum to make the jump to All-Star status. They would soon be disappointed. Tatum’s efficiency took a hit across the board, as his regular season field goal percentage and 3-point percentage each dropped by more than 2%. Along with that, his advanced statistics dipped below those of his rookie season, with his box plus/minus plummeting from 1.2 to -0.2.
Tatum’s sophomore season was quite the opposite of his rookie season, during which he played better in the playoffs than in the regular season. His scoring remained steady from the regular season and hovered around 15 points per game, but his efficiency dropped from 45% to 43.8% despite taking less shots.
Entering his third season, Tatum doubters were at an all-time high. If he didn’t make the leap this season, fans might have lost all their faith in him. Luckily for Celtics fans, the 2019-20 season brought the Tatum they expected to see after his rookie season. Through the first 40 games of the season, Tatum reached career highs in points (21.3), rebounds (7), assists (2.8), steals (1.4) and blocks (.9). These stats were impressive enough to grant him his first All-Star selection in 2020.
Beginning in January, Celtics star Kemba Walker went in and out of the lineup with injury issues, and young Tatum took advantage. In the last 19 games of the season, Tatum jumped from 21.3 points per game on about 43% from the field and 35.6% from 3 all the way to 28.3 points on just more than 48% from the field and an unbelievable 46.5% from 3-point range. Throughout his first two seasons, Tatum scored at least 30 points just once. In this same 19-game stretch to finish the 2020 regular season, Tatum had nine games where he scored 30-plus points. It was at this point when almost everyone began calling Tatum a “superstar.”
While there is no one way to distinguish between star and superstar, I believe that there are only seven current superstars in the NBA right now: James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis. One elite 19-game stretch is not enough to garner superstar status — I think at least one full season and postseason of superstar play are necessary to garner such a distinction. So what does this mean for Tatum? What does he need to do to become a superstar?
For starters, he needs to keep up this level of play in the Orlando bubble beginning later this month for the playoffs. If he can help the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference finals or even the NBA Finals while maintaining this level of scoring, he will be on the verge of superstar status. At that point, he would just need one more full season at this height of play for me to consider him a superstar and one of the 10 best players in the NBA.
So, is Jayson Tatum a superstar? No — at least, not yet.
Tom Aizenberg covers women’s swim and dive. Contact him at