Six years before facing LeBron in the playoffs, Jayson Tatum just wanted him to follow back

Starting Sunday, Jayson Tatum will be one of many Boston Celtics entrusted with trying to keep LeBron James from rampaging past them and into his fourth straight NBA Finals. Time was, though, the Celtics’ rookie star was just another teen with big dreams … both on the hardwood, and on social media:


Yep: that’s a 14-year-old Jayson looking for a follow back from a Miami Heat-era LeBron, dangling as bait a photo of a fresh-faced young Tatum posing with the King. Alas, LeBron has chosen not to get updates from Tatum’s Twitter feed — as of press time, anyway, though that could change. (Though it could also not, given the whole Zero Dark Thirty Twenty-Three Plus Some More Numbers thing.)

That hasn’t slowed Tatum’s roll, though. The youngster has progressed through AAU ball to become one of the country’s top prospects, a blue-chip recruit at Duke, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft and one of the most important pieces on a Celtics team that’s progressed to the league’s final four despite season-ending injuries to All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. In fairness, LeBron’s been a little busy the past six years, what with all the NBA Finals runs, becoming a titan of international industry, and delivering the first championship in Cleveland Cavaliers history.

Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, right, drives past Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, right, drives past Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James in the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

‘I was in like fourth grade’

Tatum recalled the circumstances behind the photo and the tweet back in October, shortly after making his NBA debut against LeBron and the Cavs on the opening night of the 2017-18 season. From MassLive.com:

“I was like in fourth grade when I took that photo,” Tatum said. “And I was like nine or 10. I remember after the game, I took a picture of him. And then I guess five years ago I tweeted it trying to get a follow back.” […]

Even Tatum said he had forgotten about the tweet until someone dug it up earlier this week. So when the Celtics and Cavaliers met on opening night, he didn’t give James a hard time about refusing to follow him years ago.

“I said what’s up,” Tatum said. “But I didn’t mention anything — I forgot about the picture and the tweet.”

“I used to watch LeBron on TV growing up, and now I’m playing my first game against him,” Tatum said before October’s season opener, smiling as he remembered his daydreams of one day matching up with James in the league. “It’s a lot […] It went good in my head. In my head.”

From following to leading

Tatum acquitted himself well in that season opener in Cleveland, starting in his NBA debut in place of the injured Marcus Morris and finding himself pressed into significantly heavier duty by the horrific ankle injury Hayward suffered in the game’s opening minutes. He defended smartly, ran the floor and didn’t shrink from the moment, finishing with 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting, 10 rebounds, three assists and one turnover in 37 minutes as Boston came up just short against the three-time-defending Eastern Conference champs. It was a preview of what was to come.

Seven months later, Tatum’s grown into one of the linchpins of a Celtics team that has soldiered on without Irving and Hayward, winning 55 games, finishing with the East’s No. 2 seed and knocking off both Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and the Joel Embiid- and Ben Simmons-led Philadelphia 76ers to earn their way into the Eastern Conference finals. He’s been brilliant when Boston has needed him most, scoring 20 or more points in seven straight games — tied for the second-longest such streak by a rookie in NBA history — and coming up huge in the deciding Game 5, scoring a team-high 25 points, including 10 in the fourth quarter, capped by a clutch layup through contact with 22 seconds left that gave the C’s a lead they’d never relinquish.

Tatum’s grown in leaps and bounds since the first time he stepped on the court with James, let alone since he posed for that picture or asked for that follow. The challenge now will be showing that growth and not looking his age in the most pressure-packed moments of what’s been a remarkable rookie season. And maybe after all’s said and done, if he holds his own and earns LeBron’s grudging respect as a worthy opponent, he’ll finally get that follow.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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