Third overall draft pick Jayson Tatum has yet to play a regular-season game in his Celtics uniform, but the 19-year-old is already drawing comparisons to beloved retiree Paul Pierce. Tatum will be given an early opportunity to test the strength of those references, as head coach Brad Stevens announced early Tuesday that the forward will be a part of Boston’s starting five in their tip-off game against the Cavaliers.
The last Celtics player to start in his NBA debut was none other than Pierce on February 5, 1999. Despite the team’s losing effort against the Toronto Raptors, the then-21-year-old gave an auspicious showing for his 16 years with the Celtics. He scored 19 points, grabbed nine rebounds, recorded five assists, and blocked four shots. Time will tell if Tatum’s performance can match that of his elder, but Pierce seems to be confident that the youngster will succeed.
Here’s a timeline of the pair’s comparisons and newfound relationship:
The Pierce associations were flowing as early as Tatum’s Summer League debut. In a game against the Philadelphia 76ers, with the Celtics down by one, the forward nailed a game-winning pull-up jumper with just seconds left in the fourth quarter. The shot was evocative of Pierce’s signature mid-range game.
Tatum hit a mid-range game-winner off an iso? OK, I see the Paul Pierce comp now.
— Chad Finn (@GlobeChadFinn) July 4, 2017
Tatum buries the midrange go-ahead jumper with a move that will make Paul Pierce smile.
— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) July 4, 2017
Following another Summer League game, even the group’s coach Walter McCarty noted that Tatum resembles a young Pierce. McCarty — who played six and a half seasons with Pierce and is currently an assistant to Stevens — explained his reasoning:
“He has that ability just to be cool,” the 43-year-old told reporters. “He doesn’t get too frantic. He doesn’t get nervous. He just lets the game come to him. And he’s got a quiet swag about him. It’s really fun to watch him when he does it. I get excited just watching him. And we’ve just got to keep building on that.”
Still not convinced? Check out this step-back fadeaway jumper from the post.
— NBA (@NBA) July 9, 2017
When asked about McCarty’s comments, Tatum called Pierce one of his favorite players and lauded both his footwork and “ability to create his own shot.”
“He’s not the most athletic guy and neither am I,” he said. “The way he found ways to score at a high level and consistently — that’s the thing I looked at.”
As Tatum continued to dazzle on the court, the rookie began to earn recognition from The Truth himself. After posting an impressive stat line in Utah and Las Vegas — 32.5 minutes, 18.2 points, and 8.9 rebounds per game — Tatum secured All-Summer League Second Team honors. Pierce voiced his praise via Instagram:
Paul Pierce during his Instagram live session on the common today: “That Tatum kid, he’s going to be real. … I like that kid.” pic.twitter.com/fWUKkeELPo
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) July 18, 2017
Nearly two months later, Pierce only continued to reinforce the Tatum comparisons.
“He looks like an older version of me, when I started doing the step-back and stuff,” he told CSNNE’s A. Sherrod Blakely. “When I’m watching him, he looks like a mature version of my game, like sixth, seventh, eighth year. He sees the defense. He knows what’s going to happen before it happens. He understands his position, footwork, his step-back is there. His offensive repertoire seems complete.”
Paul Pierce – "Jayson Tatum looks like an older version of myself, the sky is the limit for that kid."
— BostonCelticsForever (@BostonCelts4eva) October 15, 2017
“The thing I see, what makes the guy special, there’s a lot of talent in the league. There’s no question about it,” Pierce continued. “Your mentality, your drive, how great you want to be, that’s what separates the good from the great ones. You look at guys from the past, like Kobe’s determination, his competitive spirit. You see guys that were just as talented, they didn’t have the same competitive spirit, so they could not reach the levels of other greats.”
The 40-year-old also gave Tatum a steep task for his career in Boston:
“It brings chills every time,” Pierce said, when asked about the feeling of returning to the TD Garden. “Stepping out there, grabbing the ball, reminiscing about the practice days, looking up at the banners… The one thing I looked up at today was the empty banner. And I was like, ‘Man, I left one behind.’ So I’m out there talking to Jayson Tatum like, ‘You gotta fill that up for me. I left one behind.'”
The pair recently talked about the 2008 championship squad in a segment for ESPN.
“That was everything for me,” Pierce told Tatum. “I’m a kid. I grew up in L.A. I grew up a Laker fan, like you. I grew up a Laker fan, I was a Magic Johnson fan. To get drafted by the Celtics and just learn the history of the Celtics. And then to play against the Lakers and then beat them in a championship and then become part of the rivalry. So this is like everything for me. Hopefully you’ll have your chance to put your writing on the wall.”
“One day,” Tatum responded.
Albeit young, the former Duke star understands just how flattering the comparisons are, calling it an “honor to be in the same sentence” as Pierce. He also noted that the high expectations creates a little bit of added pressure.
“It does add pressure,” Tatum said on Celtics media day, “Especially when someone like Paul Pierce speaks that highly about you. I guess I just have to keep working and hopefully one day I can hopefully achieve some of the things he’s done in his career.”
In the day leading up to the team’s season opener, Pierce expressed nothing but confidence in the starting forward’s abilities.
“Most times you look at rookies, and when they first get in the NBA set, whether it be Summer League or in practice or in a game… But the times I watched him, he plays at his own pace, he’s never in a hurry,” he told ESPN’s Chris Forsberg. “That’s something you don’t really see from rookies. He has a really mature game. I think he’s going to be a major contributor for this team this year.”
Paul Pierce believes rookie Jayson Tatum will be fine starting opening night … and beyond. "I see him having a great impact this year." pic.twitter.com/f4Ng6ME4C5
— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) October 16, 2017