Jayson Tatum could've been Carmelo Anthony, but instead he's so much better

·5 min read

Tomase: Jayson Tatum is evolving into so much more than Carmelo originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

I don't really care if the Celtics sign Carmelo Anthony to fill the 11th spot on their roster. The 38-year-old is just a couple of steps above Joe Johnson at this point, and if the Celtics think he can make the occasional 3-pointer from the wing, what's the harm?

What's far more interesting to me is what Anthony's career says about the current Celtics roster, specifically superstar Jayson Tatum. Celtics fans who grumble about Tatum's disappearing act in the Finals or the team's occasional bouts with inconsistency should consider an alternate universe where Tatum developed into just a slightly different kind of All-Star.

He has all the skills to be 'Melo, after all. Both were third overall picks at age 19, both were all-NBA selections by age 21, and both are gifted individual scorers who entered the league believing that passing only existed as a means of getting them the ball.

But where Anthony's one-dimensional game never really grew and his teams never really thrived, Tatum has shown the kind of year-over-year improvement that puts him on the path to a future championship. Maybe even in 2023.

For that, we should be extremely grateful. Anthony's career will one day land him in the Hall of Fame, but it will be solely for individual accomplishments. Unlike high school rival LeBron James, who has won four titles with three different teams through sheer force of will, Anthony never elevated anyone around him, never made even a Jimmy Butler- or Paul Pierce-style leap from scorer to winner, never carried a franchise beyond the sum of its parts.

Over 19 years and 10 All-Star appearances, Anthony has only advanced out of the first round twice, which is borderline impossible in a league where victory often boils down to who has the best player on the floor. Just once were his Nuggets good enough to stand toe-to-toe with Tim Duncan's Spurs and Kobe Bryant's Lakers, and that 2009 season ended in the conference finals vs. the latter in six games.

For all of our impatience over Tatum's development, meanwhile, he has already started nearly as many playoff games in five seasons (74) as Anthony has in two decades (77). He has reached the Eastern Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once, where he and his team ran out of gas vs. the Warriors. The Celtics are currently the favorites to win it all this season, for whatever that's worth.

We've watched Tatum grow in ways that Anthony never even contemplated. As a rookie, he could barely finish at the rim at the start of the season, and he was dunking on LeBron in Game 7 by the end of it. His iso-heavy second season ended in disappointment, but he returned a year later to earn third-team All-NBA honors as a more confident finisher with a 40 percent 3-point stroke.

The real leap came last season, particularly in the playoffs, when he developed enough trust in his teammates to become a facilitator. He averaged over six assists a game in the postseason, including a career-high 13 in the Game 1 upset of the Warriors. He handled the ball constantly and also welcomed the lockdown defensive assignment on Kevin Durant in a first-round sweep of the Nets. That he couldn't finish the job against Golden State reflected less on his deficiencies and more on the load he had been asked to carry, not to mention the quality of the opposition. He was physically and mentally cooked against one of the NBA's all-time great dynasties, and I'll be shocked if he doesn't learn from that experience.

Tomase: Jayson Tatum has what it takes to win a title his way

Tatum hasn't even turned 25 yet, but we have a tendency to nitpick his flaws at the expense of the big picture -- he's one of the most complete players in the NBA, and there remain areas where he's already talented but will almost certainly improve, like ball-handling, decision-making, and defense.

He has increased his point, rebound, and assist averages in each of his first five seasons, and to understand how rare this is, here's a partial list of franchise icons who didn't do it: Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Rajon Rondo, Pierce. In fact, of the 42 players in the Hall of Fame with Celtics ties, the only other one to accomplish the feat is Kevin Garnett.

Now compare this trajectory to Anthony. Carmelo averaged over 26 points a game by age 21, but only once has he reached even four assists a game. For all of the attention he drew while taking over 20 shots a night and facing frequent double teams, he never figured out how to involve his teammates.

Tatum had all the tools to be the exact same player, an unstoppable one-on-one scorer whose contributions ended the moment the ball arced high off his fingertips. Instead, he has shown a nose for the conference finals while growing into a matchup nightmare on offense and a nuisance on defense, with the potential to be much more.

In that sense, it would be fitting for Anthony to come to Boston. He has never sniffed a title on his own, but it's not too late to hitch his wagon to a true burgeoning all-around star in search of that elusive ring.