NEW YORK—With a Blue Devil freshman selected in the top three of each of the last four drafts, Duke has grown accustomed to one of it own hearing his name called early on draft night.
But freshman Jayson Tatum will enter an entirely different situation than his predecessors Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Brandon Ingram did—at least for the moment.
Unlike the Bucks with Parker, 76ers with Okafor and the Lakers with Ingram, Tatum heads to a Celtics team that is coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance and will once again find itself among the NBA’s elite whether it makes a big splash in free agency or not.
The price of heading to a contender for Tatum will be sifting through the noise that surrounds any team with a stockpile of assets in the NBA offseason.
As of late Thursday night, talks between Boston and Indiana for a trade sending superstar Paul George to the Celtics—and potentially Tatum to the Pacers—had cooled. With Danny Ainge a constant threat to wheel and deal as the general manager in Boston, Tatum’s status may remain in flux until he hits the court in November.
But any trade chatter or side conversations could not spoil the moment for the former Blue Devil.
“It’s been a dream come true. You know, just making it to the NBA and being drafted by a great franchise like Boston,” Tatum said. “It was extremely tough, getting to where we are now, and all the hard work and sacrifice that it took to get here. Now, this is the beginning, and there’s so much ahead that I want to accomplish.”
Tatum fits nicely on a Celtics roster that sorely needed a scoring threat in the half-court to accompany guard Isaiah Thomas and big man Al Horford. Although Boston used an early draft pick on another versatile forward in Jaylen Brown a year ago, Tatum could play the four at the next level if his ability to rebound translates against bigger NBA defenders.
No matter the road Tatum takes in the NBA, the Duke star will have a strong support system around him. The freshman credited Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski with giving him confidence in Durham and will be around a person Duke fans are familiar with in Boston—Celtics head coach Brad Stevens led underdog Butler to within a half-court heave of a national championship against the Blue Devils in 2010.
Although Tatum will be the latest addition to the Duke family in the NBA, the freshman credited the people around him Thursday night with getting him to this point. After commissioner Adam Silver called Tatum’s name, the freshman hugged his mom first, before hugging his dad and grandmothers.
“Family is the most important thing. They’ve been with me my entire life, before I was going to be in the NBA, and they’ve helped me and been with me the entire way,” Tatum said. “There’s nobody else I’d rather share it with than them.”
Despite having all the tools to be a versatile swingman on the court, Tatum may face some undeserved criticism early in his career. With the Celtics trading out of the top overall spot and opting for the former Blue Devil instead of Washington’s Markelle Fultz, expect Boston fans to let Tatum hear their displeasure if Fultz takes the league by storm in a hurry.
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To make matters worse, if Tatum turns out to be the piece Boston is unwilling to part with in a trade for George or even rising New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, the forward will have enormous expectations to live up to in a city that expects championships.
Of course, any road to the NBA Finals in the Eastern Conference will go through three-time NBA champion LeBron James, and Tatum’s youth and inexperience could be exposed in a hurry against the King.
But Tatum is used to high expectations after a season at Duke, and the opportunity to play under one of the brightest young minds in basketball will be well worth it.
“[Krzyzewski] called me and talked about that Boston wanted me to come up there for a workout, and he was just ranting about how great of a person Brad Stevens is, and that Coach K would love the opportunity if they would pick me,” Tatum said. “He really wanted me to go up there and work out for them, and I was all for it.”
After adoring Kobe Bryant as a child, Tatum will head to his basketball hero’s biggest rival having made his dream of reaching the NBA a reality. And with the Celtics flush with assets and cap space to continue improving, Tatum may be competing for a lot more than just Rookie of the Year.