Jayson Tatum had spent the past few months in the spotlight, and then it was time to fade away. It was June 16 in Boston, where Tatum’s Celtics finally reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010.
Tatum was 12 in 2010, a young follower of Bradley Beal, a Chaminade Prep star in St. Louis who was clearly on his way to the league. When Tatum was 13, he bonded with coach Drew Hanlen, as the Celtics reeled from a Finals loss to the LA Lakers and began to see their potential dynasty fade.
Now Tatum faced his own loss in the Finals, running out to 13 points as his season drew to a close while the Warriors lit cigars at his house. He debriefed with Hanlen, then retired from the grid. He needed time to decompress and, for once, he had it.
“I’m still laughing because for the past two years Celtics fans have been like, ‘Oh my God, he started the season so slowly.’ Without realizing he hasn’t really had an offseason the last two summers,” Hanlen said. Athleticism. “There was the bubble (in 2020) when he went to the last four. I think we had maybe two weeks of training. Then last year he had USA Basketball, where we had maybe two weeks of practice.
Even though the Celtics played until mid-June and Tatum took the rest of the month to recuperate, he still spent seven weeks working with Hanlen in Los Angeles. The last time Tatum had a full offseason was when he became an All-Star in his third season and completely turned his career around.
It’s hard to remember, but he entered this year with a lot of questions about his future. He shone as a rookie adjusting to a 3-and-D role, then looked outmatched throughout his sophomore season as he tried to bring his true ball game to the NBA. Midway through his third season, the idea that he was going to be anything less than an All-Star seemed laughable.
His transformation from protostar to MVP contender happened during those abbreviated offseasons leading up to this breakthrough, so Hanlen and Tatum relished a chance to get some extended quality time in the gym now that Tatum is going from being a great to the elite.
“I think getting to the final and losing it when you’re so close refocuses you,” Hanlen said. “They say obsession is the narrowing of focus on the things that matter and I think he just became obsessed with winning a championship or nothing else mattered.”
Tatum didn’t need any help remembering that he had failed. He’s already an obsessed competitor. But the wound needed time to heal, but everyone he met inadvertently poured salt into it.
“It was a tough summer for me, everybody, because everywhere I went someone said ‘Good job in the finals, next year you did well,'” Tatum said after beating the Sixers on opening night. “And they wanted it, but it’s just a reminder that you lost.” You made it to the top and didn’t get over that bump.
So he returned to Los Angeles and hatched a plan with Hanlen. They watched the film throughout the season and focused on three areas to focus on, building on its focus points from last summer: Driving by contact to descend; rim finish with floats or power; and recover in the post and midrange.
“The best can always find ways to improve, so that’s what we did,” Hanlen said. “He couldn’t finish, so we worked on finishing. It wasn’t great to drive by contact, so we worked on that. We just wanted to get him back into the middle, mid-range area where he felt comfortable using those shots when needed.
The previous summer was spent “cutting the hips”, learning how to veer into the defender when driving to dislodge the defender at the hip and gain leverage when going into the paint. Now they were taking a page from Kobe Bryant’s book, but not in the way most would expect.
“You have to come out of the hips of the defender to beat him, then inside the hips of the defender when you beat him,” Hanlen said. “Then the most important thing is to put your elbow in your rib cage. It’s a nugget that we actually stole from Kobe when we did the only practice with Kobe, just the elbow against the rib cage in practices.
After Tatum struggled to adapt to the league’s education point on elbow thrusts, the elbow to rib cage is designed so that the arm is planted lower on the defender’s torso where Tatum is less likely to get caught extending his arm. It also puts the defender in a weak spot, making it harder for them to take on his physique.
Tatum has learned to sweep a defender’s wrist for leverage when driving for the past few years, but going straight into the ribcage allows him to control the defender rather than beat them on the spot.
The only thing is to make sure that the more aggressive he becomes, the more Tatum knows if he is hooking or extending his arm and risking an offensive foul.
Then Kevin Durant came to town, wanting to work with Hanlen and his team. So Hanlen set up a rotation of Durant, Tatum and Zach LaVine to take turns working in pairs.
“Any time you can get two of the best players in the world in the same practice, they can push each other and learn from each other,” Hanlen said. “It’s great for them to work together. They played together at (Team) USA, and they obviously respect each other. It wasn’t one of them trying to learn from each other, but they helped each other along the way.
Durant and Tatum working together raised eyebrows all over the league, as Jaylen Brown was in trade rumors for Durant (and was also working in Los Angeles with Marcus Smart) while Tatum and Durant appeared nationwide together. But despite all the noise outside the gym, Tatum and Durant were pushing each other.
“If we were working on ball pick-ups, KD is really, really good at ball pick-ups, so Jay would watch him and learn from him or ask him a question,” Hanlen said, explaining the perception that Durant was there to teach to Tatum was exaggerated. “If we were working on hesis or sidesteps, KD might ask Jay because Jay is a little bit more advanced in those categories. They did a good job, they pushed each other, and that’s everything.
Tatum returned for preseason with new face-up play, working from the high post in the corners. There were shades of Durant everywhere, but the irony was that it was another Hanlen client who had inspired Tatum’s move to the job.
“The funny thing is, a lot of things came out of my work with Joel (Embiid),” Hanlen said. “I had seen in the playoffs how quickly teams were able to pass Joel, so what I worked on with Joel was scoring without using a dribble or scoring on a dribble. Obviously, as JT continues to rank high, he’s going to continue to see more and more doubles and different plans and coverages.
He started flashing a few of those skills when October rolled around, facing defenders then blasting them with a lightning-fast left-hand shot and then an explosive drive to the right. But that space shrinks in the regular season, so he showed he could still create a good look at the top job on opening night.
As much as Tatum is still learning — he’s only 24 — he’s also becoming a mentor. He went through this progression, going from taking the hits that came his way as a rookie to effectively chasing them at the end of his rookie contract. Now he’s helping the next stars take that leap.
“There was one time when he was playing RJ Barrett one-on-one, he stopped (Barrett) and he said, ‘RJ, you’ve got space, you gotta shoot it,'” Hanlen said. “He’s like, ‘You don’t always get space. So if you get space, you have to shoot it. I smiled, because it’s important (for Tatum).”
Tatum learned that the game is played more between the ears than under it. He added all the mass he could need and caught more rebound moves than any wing in the league.
But most of that disappeared in the playoffs, when he was injured, exhausted and facing the best defenses in the game every night. His problem wasn’t that he lacked talent, it was that he was always looking for perseverance.
He was so close to winning a title, and he really, really struggled to score at times. He’s gotten to the point where playing his game every night, in every scenario, is the only thing holding him back.
“I think the most important thing is that you can mentally take that next step?” said Hanlen. “To really cement himself as not just one of the best players, but the best player in the world. He wants to be in that conversation. Last year he was All-NBA, but I don’t think anyone put his name in there if you said who is the best player in the world he wants to end this season with his name thrown in there.
Previously, this was measured in awards and rating titles. Tatum’s benchmarks were points per game, shooting percentages and All-NBA nods. But when he was in the gym this summer, when he’s on the court in Boston, it was clear he now measures his success by one metric.
“Not once did he mention anything else this summer other than ‘I have to win a championship,'” Hanlen said. “That’s all that matters. That’s why you evolve. That’s why you add things to your game, so you can win.
(Photo: Winslow Townson/USA Today)