Tommy Heinsohn explains what makes Jayson Tatum so special

"He hasn't come into this season wide-eyed. He's squinting."

Jayson Tatum, JR Smith
Jayson Tatum celebrates a three-point basket. –Michael Dwyer / AP

Jayson Tatum most likely isn’t going to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award.

But the 20-year-old Celtics forward, despite being one of three finalists, isn’t concerned about the results for the league’s end-of-season honors. Unlike the two other leading candidates — Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers and Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz — Tatum is still playing for a bigger prize.

“I think, at this point, I’m just focused on winning,” Tatum said. “I just want to win and advance. It’s a team thing right now.”

The Celtics have been fueled by a collective effort this postseason and clinching a spot in the NBA Finals doesn’t seem all that unfathomable. Tatum, as a rookie, has been a key contributor to the team’s success.

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“He’s playing like a five-year veteran,” former Celtics forward Tommy Heinsohn told Boston.com. “His game has expanded exponentially since the beginning of the season, when he learned what was expected of him, how to do it, and where he fit into the scheme of things. He’s come a long way and now they’re depending on him to be a significant part of the offense.”

Tatum is averaging 18.1 points per game during the postseason, up from his regular-season average of 13.9. After a couple of rocky outings against Milwaukee, he has become one of the team’s most reliable scoring options. Tatum scored 20-plus points in seven straight games, breaking Larry Bird’s record for most consecutive 20-point playoff games by a Celtics rookie.

He also became the youngest player to ever score 20-plus points in four straight playoff games — a mark previously held by his childhood idol Kobe Bryant.

The variety in Tatum’s game — he can post up, get to the rim, or shoot the long ball — has garnered praise from Bryant, retired Celtics forward Paul Pierce, and others. But his poise and maturity haven’t gone unnoticed either.

“Most players come into the league and it takes a while for them to prove to themselves that they belong,” Heinsohn said. “This kid knew he belonged right from the get-go. There was no wonderment in his game . . . He just went out and did it.”

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“He’s not afraid of the moment,” Heinsohn continued. “He’s a rookie that’s taken key shots. He’s not afraid to take them or step up to the challenge. That’s unusual in itself . . . Mistakes don’t bother him, making big shots doesn’t bother him.”

Heinsohn, who won two championships as coach of the Celtics in the 70’s, said more experience will only elevate Tatum’s game. As he explained, Tatum already has the tools — a high basketball IQ, an on-to-the-next-play approach, and a cool, calm, and collected demeanor — to be an even bigger star.

“We’ve only seen, I believe, half of what he’s capable of doing.”

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