Chris Forsberg

Jayson Tatum's MVP surge is coming: How C's star can vault up rankings

Tatum is starting to reach a new level at just the right time.

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Jayson Tatum has, not surprisingly, spent much of the 2023-24 season on the periphery of the MVP conversation.

Even as Boston has built the best record in basketball — leading the Eastern Conference by six games and sitting four games up on the closest rival (Minnesota) in the Western Conference as the NBA All-Star break nears — Tatum has been an afterthought.

This is somewhat understandable. Tatum hasn’t necessarily had an eye-popping scoring night, with two overtime-aided 45-point performances topping his season output. Tatum and the talent-gushing Celtics entered the season with expectations so lofty that the spotlight has fallen instead on a bunch of players and teams exceeding their preseason predictions.

But Tatum’s annual surge up the MVP ladder is coming. Momentum has been building as Tatum has found new ways to impact winning, including a 41-point, 14-rebound, five-assist, three-stock night in Tuesday’s triumph in Brooklyn.

Check out Jayson Tatum's impressive performance vs. Brooklyn Nets

An ESPN straw poll that came out Tuesday morning slotted Tatum sixth among MVP candidates. The five in front of him: Denver’s Nikola Jokic, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard.

Tatum spotted on 40 out of 100 ballots, but 34 of his votes slotted him fourth or fifth in voting for the top five spots, this with Joel Embiid having dropped out of consideration because of the knee injury that will prevent him from playing enough games to qualify.

It’s hard to see Jokic or SGA sliding from their top sots. Jokic, who probably deserved the award a year ago, has been his typical ridiculous self. Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed while staking the Thunder to a 37-17 record, just one game behind the Timberwolves for the best mark in the West.

But our guess is that Tatum will soon find himself on their heels. If the Celtics are so far out front that rivals need binoculars to see them, then attention will eventually shift to the best player on the best team. Even voters who penalize Tatum for the amount of talent around him will find it impossible to ignore just how successful the team has been towards the finish line of the season.

Tatum’s road map to stronger consideration is coming into focus.

An All-Star appearance this weekend will thrust Tatum into a national spotlight where his recent uptick in production will be highlighted. Coming out of the break, the Celtics visit the Knicks in a Saturday night national TV showdown. While Jalen Bruson deserves much of the hype for New York’s recent surge, there will be an opportunity for Tatum to show where he truly stands among stars in the East.

Six days later, the Celtics host Doncic and the Mavericks. Tatum routinely gets up for games against Dallas. In fact, his season-best Game Score — a catch-all metric for box score production — came in Dallas when Tatum put up 39 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists in Boston’s win over the Mavericks in January.

But the Tatum MVP hype train could reach max velocity on March 7. The Celtics head west on a daunting six-game road trip and the second night delivers them to Denver for a showdown with Jokic and the Nuggets.

A couple big nights over the next month and Tatum will be right back in the spotlight.

To be certain, Tatum has goals loftier than an individual award, and his play this season reflects that. Tatum is sacrificing scoring this season — down nearly three points per game — with Boston’s abundance of talent, but his efficiency is climbing. Not only is Tatum shooting a career-best 47.6 percent from the floor, but his 3-point shot has crawled to 36.4 percent, his highest mark since 2020-21 season (38.6).

Maybe more encouraging is the way Tatum has boosted the stats around his scoring output. While his season averages in rebounding and assists don’t show a notable gain, the month-over-month splits tell a different story.

For the six games in February, Tatum is averaging 29.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, one steal, and one block over 36.5 minutes per game. His +9.7 net rating differential looks a lot more like the usual Tatum on/off split, even if the Celtics have been better at surviving his bench  minutes this season.

Tatum might not average 30+ points this season but his impact has been just as tangible. When he’s making the right reads, especially when teams send extra attention his way, that brings out the best version of the Celtics. The uptick in assists this month doesn’t even fully hammer home the improvement in his reads, with him sometimes just kickstarting a sequence of pristine ball movement.

Tatum is elevating everyone around him. Sam Hauser shoots 52.5 beyond the 3-point arc on passes from Tatum. Derrick White is at 47.7 percent on perimeter looks. Al Horford is shooting 76.5 percent on 2-point shots generated by Tatum. When teams put all their attention on Tatum, he puts his teammates in position to thrive.

Combine that with some quality defense in big spots — like stopping Bam Adebayo in a key late-game spot in Sunday’s win in Miami — and Tatum is having the sort of two-way impact that deserves more MVP consideration.

Is he going to win the award? Probably not. But he’s going to finish in a spot far loftier than where he sits at the moment. The surge is coming.

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