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Boston Celtics: SI ranks Jayson Tatum (#35) and Kemba Walker (#20) in Top-100

Five Boston Celtics players made SI's latest Top-100 NBA players list for 2020, and in a previous article I wrote about Marcus Smart (ranked #82), Jaylen Brown (#68) and Gordon Hayward (#59). Jayson Tatum came in at #35 and Kemba Walker was ranked 20th in SI's analysis. This is what SI's Rob Mahoney had to say about Jayson and Kemba:

Jayson Tatum: #35: It might be helpful to compartmentalize the version of Jayson Tatum we saw last season from the player he could be one day. That isn’t to deny the existence of the former; Tatum’s mystifying efforts to become a mid-post specialist proved to be a failure on every level. If that is the crux of his game, he will level out as a player without so much as sniffing stardom. That said, cleaning up his shot profile even slightly would go a long way. The 21-year-old has a lot of the qualities teams look for in a centerpiece prospect: three-level scoring, strong defensive fundamentals, positional fluidity—Tatum even has an NBA proof of concept with his performance in the 2018 playoffs. You can see all the pieces, if only Tatum could crystallize his game a bit. There have been too many nights where Tatum becomes just another guy: a positive contributor, but a forgettable one. Some of that was the byproduct of Boston’s ensemble last season. Some other part stems from the way Tatum has operated thus far. Once that changes, so will his status within the league.

I feel Tatum is well on his way to correcting the negative issues in his game. He is becoming a solid rebounder, and his improved passing skills (and his proclivity to distribute the ball) were recently evident in World Cup play. Few doubt his potential for NBA stardom, and that may happen this season.

Kemba Walker: #20: Pick-and-roll basketball is still the core of the modern NBA, and Kemba Walker is among its chief practitioners. This wasn’t always the case. Walker spent the first half of his career letting defenses off the hook by stepping into long, difficult twos. Those shots are not only inefficient, but static; defenders aren’t forced into uncomfortable situations when a ball-handler comes around a screen in predictable fashion and hoists up a tough shot, which means that the actual power of the sequence goes wasted. The point of running a pick-and-roll is not to get Walker a semi-open shot. It’s to push defenders to the point of panic.

For Walker, that could be as simple as hesitating in the space behind the screen, forcing more conservative defenses into a gut check. It could be the way he chooses to snake through a pick-and-roll rather than attempt a straight-line drive, extending his stay in the areas of the floor most sensitive to a team defense. Or it might even start earlier: before a screen is ever set, where Walker uses a subtle step to set up his defender to be creamed. Opponents have to respect the possibility that Walker might pull up for a three at any time. That makes him a risk from about 25 feet in, which has a way of making opponents antsy before Walker ever makes his move.

The only real downsides with Walker can be pegged to his size. Coaches are generally pleased with the way he goes about his work on defense, but any player this small (Walker is a listed 6’1’’, which feels somewhat generous) will give up marginal advantages over the course of the game. It’s just easier for opponents to see over—and shoot over—the top of him. Walker gets some of those points back by positioning himself well and drawing a ton of offensive fouls, but on a certain level he will always be an undersized guard in a league oriented around verticality. Walker was blocked more than any player in the league last season. There will be passes around bigger, longer defenders that he can’t quite manage. What makes Walker a star is that he just keeps coming anyway, once more unto the breach.

I absolutely agree that the only downside of Walker is his size. Even 6'3" Kyrie Irving was somewhat small for what the Celtics try to do. Kemba at 6'1" has an even bigger (or smaller?) issue. It is to a players credit when an analyst, just as Mahoney, lists Kemba's only real liability as something that can't be improved - his height.

Follow Tom at @CelticsSentinel and @_Celtics_Center

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