To be the best, you have to learn from the best.
Coming off of a breakout season that saw him earn the first All-Star and All-NBA selection of his career, Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum has a plan to take his game to the next level.
Not only is he focused on getting stronger, expanding his range and becoming "even more of a defensive presence," Tatum's hoping to become a more efficient scorer by taking a page out of the book of one of the greatest offensive players in NBA history.
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"I study a lot of guys that score at a high, efficient rate. If you look at - especially when KD played for the Warriors - all of those guys moved really well off the ball with energy," Tatum said ahead of the 2020-21 season.
"The ball finds energy. It's kind of as simple as that."
It's easy to forget how good of an off-ball scorer Kevin Durant is because of how great of an on-ball scorer he is. When thinking of the moments that make Kevin Durant "Kevin Durant," you're far more likely to remember him pulling up over LeBron James in the Finals, putting Brendan Haywood on a poster or picking the LA Clippers apart out of the midpost than you are of him flying around a screen for an open 16-footer.
But even if it's not the most eye-popping part of his game, Durant's ability to play on and off-ball at such a high rate is what makes him practically impossible to guard and so easy to build around.
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Durant's peak as an off-ball scorer to this point of his career came in 2016-17, his first season with the Golden State Warriors. According to NBA.com, only nine players scored more points off of screens than Durant that season. He ranked in the 84th percentile in scoring efficiency on those plays with an average of 1.14 points per possession.
Durant also scored a decent amount off of cuts that season while ranking in the 91st percentile with an average of 1.50 points per possession. Together, he generated a fifth of his offence in 2016-17 off of screens and cuts, doing so at video game-levels of efficiency.
It helps, of course, who Durant was surrounded by. In Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, he shared the floor with arguably two of the greatest 3-point shooters and gravity suckers of all-time. Additionally, he was teammates with Draymond Green, who has long been one of the best passing big men in the league, as well as Zaza Pachulia, who was one of the best screen-setters in the league.
Simply having Curry or Thompson set a screen on Durant put his defender between a rock and a hard place because of how reluctant Curry and Thompson's defenders were to leave them.
This possession resulted in a wide-open dunk for Durant...
...but had Gary Harris provided any help, Thompson, who is arguably the league's best scorer off of screens, would've been off to the races, curling off of a double screen from Green and Pachulia for what would've likely been an open 3-pointer.
That version of that Warriors basically became a big game of pick your poison. If it wasn't Durant, it was Curry. If it wasn't Curry, it was Thompson. And if it wasn't Thompson, it was Green popping for a wide-open 3 or Pachulia slipping towards the basket for a dunk. Either way, the Warriors were getting a high percentage look more often than not.
That's not to take away from how unique of an off-ball weapon Durant is, because he truly is one-of-a-kind.
For one, Durant's always been an efficient three-level scorer, capable of taking whatever the defence gives him. In that 2016-17 season, he shot 78.2 percent in the restricted area, 47.3 percent from midrange and 37.5 percent from 3-point range.
The combination helped Durant put together one of the most efficient volume scoring seasons in NBA history.
Two, Durant has the size to shoot over everyone, standing at 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan.
Three, there is very little wasted movement in his game, from his footwork to his release.
Four, Durant is a willing off-ball player. He became more of an isolation and pick-and-roll scorer by the end of his tenure with the Warriors, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more malleable superstar because of how versatile he is.
The good news for the Celtics? Tatum already has some of that in his game.
He's not the three-level scorer Durant is, but Tatum is a capable three-level scorer, making 59.3 percent of his field-goal attempts in the restricted area, 38.3 percent from midrange and 40.3 percent from 3-point range last season. He's neither as tall nor long as Durant, but Tatum is listed at 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. (Celtics head coach Brad Stevens recently said that Tatum has grown to 6-foot-10, so they might be even closer in height).
And while he has yet to come close to the heights Durant has as an off-ball threat - Tatum ranked in the 24th percentile in scoring efficiency off of screens and the 47th percentile off of cuts last season - he has the potential to make it a bigger part of his game.
Whether or not we start to see him tap into that potential this season remains to be seen, but learning from the best is the first step.
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