It’s been a strange, challenging season for Celtics forward Jayson Tatum — and that’s putting it mildly.
The two-time All-Star had to bounce back quickly after a long stint in the NBA’s Florida bubble ended with elimination in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals. Boston lost Gordon Hayward to Charlotte during the free-agency period, placing even more responsibility on Tatum’s shoulders. The Celtics have struggled with injuries (most notably Marcus Smart’s calf strain), inconsistent play and COVID-19 issues.
Tatum is one of the many NBA players who has tested positive for COVID-19 this season and missed games as part of the league’s health and safety protocols. He admitted that he was dealing with lingering effects more than a month after his initial test results revealed he had contracted the virus.
“I think it messes with your breathing a little bit,” Tatum said in February. “I have experienced some games where, I don’t want to say [I was] struggling to breathe, but, you know, you get fatigued a lot quicker than normal. Just running up and down the court a few times, it’s easier to get out of breath or tired a lot faster.
“I’ve noticed that since I’ve had COVID. It’s just something I’m working on.”
And yet, despite all the difficulties, Tatum is still having arguably his best year as a pro. Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Jazz, Tatum was averaging a career-high 25.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point range. While Boston has not lived up to expectations, it is very much in the thick of the East playoff race.
So what can we expect from Tatum and his teammates in the second half of the 2020-21 campaign? Sporting News talked with the 23-year-old on Monday about the state of the Celtics and much more.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Sporting News: Before we get to anything about the Celtics, I know you spoke openly last month about the effects of COVID-19 and feeling fatigued on the floor. How are you feeling now? Are you still feeling those physical effects?
Jayson Tatum: I think there for sure have been steady improvements. From everyone else that I’ve talked to that has experienced what I’m going through, they said it’s just kind of a process, and it does take some time to kind of fully recover from a conditioning standpoint where it’s not really affecting your breathing while you’re playing. It’s getting better. I think that’s all you can ask for.
SN: Have you talked to other guys within the league who have dealt with similar issues? Do you as NBA players have a feel for how are others are doing within your own small basketball community?
JT: Yeah, I’ve talked to guys that are in the NBA, and I’ve talked to guys in other leagues. Just kind of talk about what they had to deal with, how they recovered, how they felt afterward getting back to playing in their respective sports. I did have a conversation with a couple different guys.
SN: With where we’re at in the season going into the second half, how do you feel about this team and the roster as you have it currently constructed? And moving forward, what do you think that you have to do in order to be considered among that elite championship tier?
JT: I think, now that everyone is healthy, obviously we feel like a different team. We’re playing like a different team. Just having everyone back together is a big part of it. With the roster situation, that’s not really for me to say. My job and everyone else’s job in that locker room is to go out there and play to the best of our abilities, help win games. Those decisions are above us. I feel like each and every person brings something different to the table that we need. So, I like our team. We’ve been playing better as of late, and hopefully we continue to improve on that.
SN: What do you think is the factor that will allow the Celtics to get wins at a consistent level and take that momentum into the playoffs?
JT: I think just being more consistent throughout a game, whether we have the lead, maintaining that or — you’re not gonna be perfect throughout a game. But just not getting beat on things that we walk through in practice, things that we watch film over or go over in walkthrough, being secure on that stuff. Obviously, it’s the NBA. Guys are gonna make plays and hit some shots, but not making it easy for them. Try to take stuff like that away. It’s just the detailed things that we can do better.
SN: One of the biggest things for your team just recently was the return of Marcus Smart and what he brings on both ends of the floor. Not that you didn’t know there would be some sort of impact when he wasn’t able to play, but how much of a lift does he provide?
JT: Obviously, Smart is really, really, really good and a very key part of our team. We sure missed him, his presence and all those intangible things that he does on a nightly basis that may not necessarily show up on the stat sheet.
SN: Robert Williams has been playing well. He had a season-high 16 points in a win over the Rockets. How have you seen him progress as a young player and fill that role as a vertical threat and a rim protector? Coming into the league, I think everybody knew he had the tools, but he’s been putting it together.
JT: I love Rob. He works extremely hard. He’s gotten so much better to where he’s a key part of our team. We need him to be successful, and he knows that. He’s taken on that responsibility, and it shows. Rob is gonna be special. I truly believe that.
SN: Is there a certain part of his game or something that he’s done that’s really stuck out to you? Something that he’s done on a game-to-game basis?
JT: I think his talk, him talking on the floor, which people may not recognize. But being on the floor with him, just hearing his voice and his presence especially on the defensive end, I feel like it’s gotten so much better than his first year in the league.
SN: Is that something that just takes time — generally speaking, not even specific to Rob — to be able to find your voice in the league and grow comfortable addressing your teammates?
JT: Yeah, especially depending on your personality, you’ve gotta get comfortable with yourself, comfortable with the situation and your teammates. From guy to guy, that varies, how long it takes. But he’s figured it out.
SN: I know there’s the internet joke about you always being 19 years old, but you’ve also grown into an All-Star and reached a high level early in your career. With how much you’ve accomplished — being in the conference finals, a top role on the team — how have you improved as a leader?
JT: Even at a young age, I think my basketball experience thus far in the league and the work that I’ve put in kind of gives you that credibility to be a leader and earn the respect of your teammates in that aspect.
SN: Last one before I let you go here. I know your Blue Devils are out, but do you have a March Madness championship pick for this year?
JT: I mean, if we’re not in it — I’m gonna watch it, but it would be hard for me to pick somebody else.
SN: So you’re on the same page as Zion Williamson, then? He said if Duke isn’t in there, then I’m not interested.
JT: Oh, yeah. I feel him.
Tatum spoke with Sporting News as part of a promotional interview on behalf of Subway. Basketball fans can join Tatum and Warriors star Draymond Green by creating their own sandwiches and sharing them on social media with #MySubwaySub. (You may have heard Tatum’s sub has bacon.)
“It was just something that’s very genuine to myself,” Tatum said. “I’ve been eating Subway ever since I was a kid, grew up eating Subway. So when the opportunity came, it was a no-brainer. I think that’s the best part for me, creating something and people enjoying it.”