Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum sinking 3-pointers with unforeseen and unparalleled efficiency

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DETROIT – Jayson Tatum says he doesn’t understand eschewing mid-range jumpers, which analytics have shown are typically less efficient when other shots – 3-pointers and shots at the rim – are available. He subscribes to decades of basketball orthodoxy reinforced by his own experience at the highest level of college basketball and the praise heaped upon him at summer league.

“Some of the best players ever were great at mid-range,” Tatum said. “Kobe, Michael Jordan, Paul Pierce, Dirk.”

Ever since the Celtics drafted Tatum No. 3 last June, Boston coach Brad Stevens has tried to deprogram Tatum’s attitude on jumpers.

Tatum heard from Stevens during the summer.

“If I was involved in a film session at all this summer, it was about what a good shot looks like once you get to the NBA,” Stevens said.

Tatum heard from Stevens during training camp.

“If I would pass up a 3 to take a mid-range 2, he’d stop practice,” Tatum said.

And Tatum has heard from Stevens during the regular season.

“We have tried to make it an emphasis to don’t hesitate to shoot, right?” Stevens said. “He’s so tall that, on the catch, he can get that shot off. And probably his inclination has probably always been to fake it and drive it. But he shoots it with ease and feels good every time he shoots it.”

Somewhere along line, Stevens’ message got through. Tatum has taken more than twice as many 3-pointers as long 2s. The change in Tatum’s approach is an overwhelming victory for smarts over stubbornness. Simply by changing his shot selection, Tatum has become much more valuable to Boston.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s making a stunning 51.5% of his 3-pointers, either.

Not only does Tatum lead the NBA in 3-point percentage (among qualified players, as are all 3-point percentages in this story)…

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Not only is he on pace for the best 3-point percentage every by a rookie…

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He’s posting one of the best 3-point percentages of all-time:

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It’s a startling output for someone who didn’t shoot especially well from the college arc just last season. Tatum made just 34.2% of his 3-pointers in his lone season at Duke. Nobody with such a low college 3-point percentage has ever cracked 40%, let alone 50%, as a rookie.

“Anybody who says they’re not surprised by the 3-point shooting based on what he did in college is lying,” Pistons president/coach Van Gundy said.

Yet, Van Gundy endorses an assertion the Celtics made after they traded down from No. 1 to draft Tatum at No. 3.

“I thought he was the best prospect in the draft,” said Van Gundy, a more neutral observer. “He’s got all the tools.”

Tatum has the athleticism to attack the rim, and he has shown a proclivity for drawing fouls. At 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and good mobility, he already looks like a solid defender with the potential to become a shutdown stopper. He’s helpful on the glass, too.

But it’s 3-point shooting that makes him the most likely No. 1 pick in a redone 2017 draft. Nobody else taken top six is shooting even 30% on 3s, the troubles of No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball especially pronounced.

Maybe Tatum’s long-distance success is unsustainable. He has attempted just 99 3-pointers (making 51). That’s not a large enough sample to prove Tatum is now reliable from beyond the arc. It’s probably wise to be skeptical of something that recently seemed so improbable.

On the other hand, even if this is just a hot stretch, it’s one usually reserved for good 3-point shooters. The player Tatum was most compared to before the draft, Carmelo Anthony, never made 51-of-99 3-pointers in any stretch of his career – and Anthony made himself into a pretty good 3-point shooter. There’s plenty of room for Tatum to regress and remain incredibly effective.

In the meantime, his 3-point percentage is sparkling as All-Star Weekend approaches. Tatum doesn’t expect to be selected for the 3-point contest, and he might be right. Part of his efficiency is due to selectivity. Despite starting and shooting so accurately, he’s tied for 59th in 3-pointers made. But he also hoped just to near 40% on his 3-pointers this season, and that prediction has been way off.

“If I got picked to do it, I’d definitely go,” Tatum said.

Tatum can’t control that. He can only somewhat control how many of his 3-pointers go in. But he can control how many he takes.

In that respect, maybe his talent was projectable.

“He’s a good listener,” said Pistons rookie Luke Kennard, who played with Tatum at Duke. “I know, when I was on the court with him, playing with him, I could always go up to him and talk to him about something on the court. Whether I thought I could do something better, he was listening. Next play, it was happening.”

Tatum’s next step is increasing his volume from three 3-point attempts per game. Shoot anyway when closing defenders are nearer. Mix in more pull-up 3s out of the pick-and-roll.

Why not? He has already made everything look so easy.