Forsberg: Defense could be key to Jayson Tatum's MVP chances


The offensive output will forever be the focal point with Jayson Tatum. Ten games into the 2022-23 season, he’s trending towards being the first Boston player ever to average better than 30 points per game and is quarterbacking a Celtics offense on a historic pace of its own.

Tatum poured in a game-high 39 points on Monday night during a superstar showdown with Ja Morant. But it was a pair of Tatum blocks on Morant that bookended a performance in which he overcame some poor perimeter shooting to help the Celtics escape Memphis with a win.

Celtics Talk POSTGAME POD: Jayson Tatum and Ja Morant put on a show in an instant classic Celtics win | Listen & Subscribe

That Tatum can struggle with his 3-point shot and still nearly put up 40 points is progress of its own. His uptick in attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line is a story of its own.

But Tatum’s defensive efforts deserved a spotlight on Monday night. From somehow pinning a full-steam Morant layup attempt in the opening minute to swatting Morant’s late-game leaner in isolation, Tatum showed his continued defensive development.

And that defense might ultimately be the key to any pursuit of a Most Valuable Player trophy.

Tatum has always had All-Defense potential because of his frame. He’s able to jump passing lanes with his length and can make life difficult for non-centers because of his size. But he’s harnessing his defensive talents differently this season.

Already this season, Tatum had an overtime-forcing block of Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland last week, and on Monday, Tatum repeatedly took on the challenge of defending Morant as the Celtics clung to their lead in crunch time.

Morant finished 0-for-4 shooting with zero points and two blocked attempts against Tatum. It was a limited overall matchup but nearly all of those possessions came in the final 4:30 of play.

"I say it all the time, trying to impact winning on both ends," Tatum said. "Especially playing against other really great, good, talented players. It’s all about competing and taking on that challenge within the game plan. That’s what I try to do on a nightly basis."

Tatum was rewarded for his defensive efforts late when, after contesting a Morant straightaway 3-pointer with 3:30 to go, he leaked out in transition and threw down a loud tomahawk dunk when Jaylen Brown kicked the ball ahead. Tatum then loudly clapped his hands and exulted to the Memphis crowd.

It’s hard to make a statistical case for Tatum for All-Defense when the Celtics linger 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating. Boston’s defensive rating improves by nearly six points when Tatum is off the court in early returns.

But if the return of Robert Williams III helps the Celtics' starters tighten up on that end of the floor, Tatum could eventually wiggle his way into that conversation later in the season.

Tatum has had multiple blocks in half of Boston’s 10 games, including three of the last four outings. NBA defensive tracking has him committing only two shooting fouls through 10 games (after committing 57 in 76 games last year).

It’s hard to thrust yourself into the MVP conversation with players like Giannis Antetokounmpo given the Greek Freak’s impact on both ends of the court. But Tatum is slowly showing he can be a two-way force. That’s what might separate him from other MVP candidates like Luka Doncic.

Tatum’s game is evolving on both ends. He had already checked a bunch of the superstar boxes but his evolution on the defensive end could thrust him into a different sort of stratosphere.

One where it’s not outlandish to put his name in the conversation for the best player in the NBA.

Contact Us