Jayson Tatum drove to the basket, elevated, and dunked on LeBron James. It happened in a flash. Chest bumps followed. There was a scowl. It was Tatum's time, even as just a rookie. That moment capped a tremendous postseason run that quickly led pundits to declare Tatum was the next big breakout star in the NBA. Expectations skyrocketed for Tatum and the Boston Celtics before his sophomore season even began. Tatum increased his numbers across the board, but the general consensus was that he didn’t take the jump that everyone was expecting. Despite last season not going as planned, Tatum isn’t fazed by anything.
“Expectations were high but I mean I embrace that,” Tatum tells Complex in an exclusive interview. “My expectations for myself are always higher than what people think of me. Last year didn't go as planned (but) I still got better, not necessarily the jump that people expected but it's a new year. I'm excited to take a big jump.”
Tatum has a different approach for this season to take his game to the next level and no, it’s not scrapping the Mamba Mentality like many pundits have already suggested. Tatum called those claims absolutely silly.
“I've seen people saying I need to take the Kobe out of my game,” Tatum says. “I'm like, that's all nonsense because any time somebody of that caliber wants to reach out and help you out, it’s only a positive thing. He's taught me a lot of things and you know, those are not things that I would ever want to stay away from or forget.”
Before the 2019-20 NBA season tips off, we caught up with Tatum to discuss his new approach this season, Zion Williamson doubters, Kyrie’s departure, & his partnership with New Era, and more.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
This is going to be a new situation for you and the Celtics this season. Kemba is the big free agent pickup, but do you feel like this is going to be your year to breakout and potentially be the number one option in Boston?
Yeah, it's going to be a fun year, I'm excited. A different outlook, different teams, so we're really excited. got a lot of new faces and guys, it should be fun. It's going to be an exciting year for myself and a lot of different other guys. We're just ready for the season to get started. As well as everybody, all the fans, it's going to be a great year for basketball.
Here you are at 21 years old as arguably the face of the Celtics, what’s that like and what can we expect from you this season: All-Star, NBA title, All-NBA?
Yeah, expectations are always high and I would like them to be, just want to continue to get better year in and year out. Be a better version of myself this year than I was last year. And winning is always the top priority and everything else will fall in place as long as you focus on winning.
Kyrie went to Brooklyn. That's your boy, “The Brotherhood." Where were you when you found out he was going to Brooklyn and were you surprised?
I don't necessarily remember where I was at, but surprised? I don't know, maybe. But happy for him and that's my guy no matter what. And we still talk all the time pretty often. And I'm happy for the people in this business that always do what makes them happy and you know, I'm not upset or anything. I'm happy for him, you know, we'll see him when we play the Nets. It should be fun.
Kyrie's had a lot of labels put on him. I think he's one of the more misunderstood players in the league; he was labeled as a bad teammate. But what are your thoughts when you hear these whispers?
It's just rumors. Usually the people that they’ll be talking about it or hear talking about it are not with us every day or they're not a coach, they're not a teammate or player or a sports' analyst or a talk show person. They don't really have a lot of knowledge or experience on what they’re talking about. But, that's their job, so my job, you know as a basketball player, there's things like that, you know, sports analyst, they talk about things, everybody has their own opinion doesn't make it right or wrong but as my job I don't really feed into things like that cause you know, that's not my thing, I'm a basketball player. So you know, I think you just got to leave it at that.
You recently said that last season you were making the game tougher on yourself. How are you looking to correct that this year?
I mean, make yourself look, if I'm open shooter, if I'm being guarded attack the basket. Really just make it quicker decisions playing faster. And that's something to help you where USA basketball this summer, playing with Coach Pop he talked about .5 basketball, you know you got .5 seconds to shoot it, drive through there or swing it. Just trying to have your mentality of playing faster, and when you do that you're harder to guard.
Are you still rocking with the Mamba mentality?
Oh yeah, of course. Kobe is my favorite player, always will be. He's helped me a lot. He's taught me a lot of things and you know, those are not things that I would ever want to stay away from or forget since you know also just trying to make things easier on myself, but I've seen people saying I need to take the Kobe out of my game. I'm like, that's all nonsense because any time somebody of that caliber wants to reach out and help you out, it’s only a positive thing.
I've seen people saying I need to take the Kobe out of my game. I'm like, that's all nonsense because any time somebody of that caliber wants to reach out and help you out, it’s only a positive thing.
Zion Williamson, your fellow Jordan teammate. He had 29 the other night and people were still critiquing his shot chart. What do you think about his game and how do you, how good do you think he could be?
Yeah, I'm excited. I think he's really, really good. He had 29 the other night and all people keep talking about was all his shots were in the paint and he didn't shoot the ball, but you know, no matter what people are going to find something to critique and that's what drives people to be, to be great. You can go, so keep working. It's still early. Yeah, he's going to be fine.
I actually talked to Karl-Anthony Towns not too long ago and we were kind of joking about Coach K and Coach Cal. I asked if he truly believed Coach Cal is better than Coach K. And he said it's not even close. Just look at the NBA. So I mean I got to ask you too. Coach K versus Coach Cal. Why is Coach K better than Coach Cal?
I mean I got nothing but love for Coach Cal. He recruited me. We got close and I still talk to him when I see him and things like that. But I mean I expect KAT to say Cal]. I played for coach K and I have a different outlook and, I think Coach K is a GOAT. Just all around, USA basketball, five championships and five titles at Duke. He's been coaching at the same school for 30 some 35 plus years. His resumé speaks for itself and yeah, I don't think anybody else has accomplished what he has. He's still doing it at 71-years-old. That's pretty remarkable.
Another fellow Jordan teammate is Melo. Do you believe he should be on a team and would you even be open to him joining the Celtics?
Of course. Melo has been one of my favorite players. One of the guys I've looked up to for a long time. And there's no doubt in my mind that Melo should definitely be in the NBA and making an impact on the team, no question.
Do you sense that coming up this season that the NBA's more wide open than it's been in years past?
Yeah, I do. It’s a more entertaining NBA. A lot more balance than it has been in recent years and it makes for more excitement and more competitiveness. Better for the fans, going to be great games every night.
From what have you seen from this year's team so far, what’s the difference from last year's team?
A lot. It's early, obviously, but we got 12, 13 new guys. Everybody brings a different dynamic and aspect in their own ways than the team we had last year because it's so different.
Going back to your rookie year, I would say the LeBron dunk is going to be one of the iconic moments of your career. But at the time do you feel like the moment itself kind of accelerated people's expectations of you? Like people were expecting you to average like 25 and 7 next year just because of that play.
I think it's just the season I had, I was two points away from being the leading all time score for Rookies in the playoffs. That had a lot to do with. Expectations were high but I mean I embrace that. My expectations for myself are always higher than what people think of me. But you know, last year didn't go as planned. I still got better, not necessarily the jump that people expected but it's the new year. I'm excited to take a big jump.
What's the ceiling for your squad this year? You're going to say you want to win the NBA title, but there is a lot of turnover on the roster. How do you feel like you guys can can gel quickly and where do you think you’ll eventually end up?
Oh, obviously, like you said, everybody want to win a championship. We're no different. We got a lot of talent by the new guys, but I think we just got to take one day at a time. Compete every day, not look to far ahead and get beside ourselves and we've got to take it one day at a time. Just try to be the best team we can be every day. Worry about, you know, X months from now we've got to get through today.
Tell us what you like about working with New Era and their new collection?
I like everything. My favorite part about being with New Era, I've always liked New Era, wore the hats and things like that. But just to be on the creative side and have an opportunity to have my twist and my input on things and see it really come to life. I love the product, I wear a hat all the time and especially the ones that I get to help design.
Obviously you're from St. Louis, so I'm assuming you got a lot of Cardinals caps in your closet?
Oh for sure, when I first signed I told them I only want St. Louis hats, you know all different styles, colorways and I want to rep where I'm from. And I've always been that type of person. So that was really exciting for me to be with New Era just to get on a different styles of St. Louis hats that I possibly could. You know, for a month.