Celtics

‘He’s much more vocal’: Ime Udoka explained how Jayson Tatum has evolved this season

"[He's] much more vocal, and then on the court he's a bucket."

Jayson Tatum and Ime Udoka have had many reasons to smile lately. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The Celtics and Jayson Tatum have been on a tear as of late.

Boston’s won 13 of its last 15 games, and during that stretch, Tatum’s averaged 26.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game. Tatum’s shooting has also improved too from his early-season struggles, making 47 percent of his shots from the field since Jan. 29.

While Tatum continues to grow on the court, first-year Celtics coach Ime Udoka has noticed Tatum grow off it, too.

“As far as a leader, he’s much more vocal,” Udoka said on ESPN’s “NBA Today.” “In the past, obviously, coming in as a younger player, his elite status had him up there right from the start, but he had a lot of veterans around him, so he’s kinda picking and choosing his way. Now him and Jaylen [Brown], with the guys who have been gone over the last few years, they know it’s their team.

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“[He’s] much more vocal, and then on the court he’s a bucket. He can get 30 in his sleep. We’ve just tried to help him grow and expand his game. He’s doing all the things he naturally does, but also becoming much more of a playmaker, a leader out there and getting everybody else involved.”

Even though things have been smooth sailing for Tatum and the Celtics as of late, that hasn’t been the case for the whole season. Boston was at .500 again through the first 50 games of the season after going .500 the year prior. As the Celtics struggled to break through, talk of splitting Tatum and Brown heated up like never before.

The talk of splitting the two young stars looks a bit silly with the team now 38-27, good enough for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference and in striking distance of one of the top seeds. But Udoka thought the talk of splitting Tatum and Brown up during the months the Celtics struggled was silly then, too.

“Well, for me, any time you have two elite, high-level players, you just have to figure out how to make them work,” Udoka said. “Like I said, they’ve been in different roles in the past…they had a lot of veterans with them. Now, it’s all on their shoulders to some extent. You know, you can put certain pieces around them but the bulk of the minutes, the bulk of the plays, and everything will be ran for these guys. It was different for them to be in that position.

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“But anytime you have two elite players like that, the one thing I said was everybody talking about breaking them up would love to have any of these two in a heartbeat. So, we’ll figure out how to make it work.”

Tatum’s offensive surge has certainly been a reason for the Celtics’ hot streak. But it’s not the only reason why Boston’s played so well, and it’s probably not the biggest reason for all of its wins. Since the turn of the calendar, the Celtics have had the league’s best defense, posting a 102.7 defensive rating.

After getting through injuries to Brown and another COVID-19 outbreak within the team, Udoka believes that the recent luck in health has allowed him to utilize his roster the way he would like.

“We took our lumps early. We had some losses that really stung,” Udoka said. “We were mixing and matching a ton of our lineups and rotations due to COVID situations and injuries. So, once we got everybody back healthy, the numbers showed in the small sample size that we were really good defensively and our offense would grow.

“We’ve had everybody back for a good stretch now – minus Jaylen going down the other day. Everybody’s bought into the defensive mentality. We don’t have a lot of holes defensively. You look at Marcus [Smart], Jaylen, Jayson, Al [Horford], and Rob [Williams], we’ve got great size, versatility, and length that can do a lot of great things defensively.”

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