Jayson Tatum was in the process of checking a goal off his basketball bucket list when another surfaced.
While overseeing his first skills camp this summer at Chaminade, a moment he had looked forward to since he attended similar events as a child, Tatum looked toward the roof of his high school alma mater’s gym.
Two numbers stared back.
David Lee’s No. 15 had been suspended above this court since 2001. Bradley Beal’s No. 23 claimed the spot alongside Lee in 2013. I asked Tatum when his digits would be lifted.
“Good question,” Tatum said that July afternoon.
It did not take long. When it comes to Tatum, it rarely does.
The 20-year-old’s amazing trajectory from St. Louis preps legend, to Duke diaper dandy, to Celtics breakout rookie has happened so fast.
Moments Tatum used to dream about are occurring in rapid-fire fashion all around him.
He used to collect SLAM magazines. This month, he’s on the cover.
Tatum, like every kid who grew up beneath the shadow of the Arch, knows the words to nearly every Nelly song. Now the rapper can be found referring to Tatum as a nephew on Instagram.
And both of these ‘whoa’ moments have happened since Tatum’s No. 22 was retired during a surprise August ceremony at Chaminade.
The NBA returns Tuesday night. Tatum’s sophomore season in the league will feature his biggest spotlight yet. The No. 3 draft pick in 2017 has gone from ascending talent to star in the snap of two fingers.
He is being counted on as a crucial part of what Boston hopes becomes a championship team.
“I always looked at myself as a star, somebody who was going to make a big impact in the league,” Tatum said this summer. “I never wanted to just make it to the NBA and be a role player. I knew once my opportunity was going to come that I could show my coaching staff, my teammates and the world what I could do, no matter if it was my first year, no matter how young I was.”
Many figured Boston’s chances of contending last season ended in Game 1, when forward Gordon Hayward suffered a broken ankle. Tatum’s emergence — he joined Larry Bird and Dave Cowens as the only Celtics to record a double-double in their first game and never looked back — became a crucial part of the Celtics’ response.
Coach Brad Stevens’ team went 55-27 and took LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Tatum earned his conference’s rookie of the month award in December. He and teammate Jaylen Brown claimed spots on the league’s Rising Stars team. If there was a ceiling tile left, Tatum crashed through it during a stellar postseason, specifically when he hammered home a dunk over James in Game 7.
Tatum and James embraced on the court after the Cavaliers advanced. James pulled Tatum close. The King’s message did not reach the microphones.
What did he say?
“You’re going to be a star,” Tatum recalled.
Now James has switched conferences, joined the Lakers and set his aim on the powerhouse Golden State Warriors. Hayward is back and healthy, though his minutes could be limited early in the season. Boston should rule the Eastern Conference, though Tatum’s mentor might have something to say about that.
Of the St. Louis locals in the league, just one is in a prime position to challenge Boston. It could be Patrick McCaw, though the third-year guard remains locked in an increasingly ugly holdout with the Warriors. It probably won’t be sixth-year guard Ben McLemore, who will try to make the most out of his reunion with the Sacramento Kings following a career-worst season with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The correct answer is Beal.
The player Tatum grew up idolizing also reached new heights last season with the Washington Wizards after a star teammate went down. With John Wall limited to 41 games because of a knee injury, Beal averaged 22.6 points while distributing a career-high 4.5 assists en route to the first All-Star appearance in his six-year career. Wall rejoined Beal and Missouri native Otto Porter for the Wizards’ fourth postseason appearance in the past five years, but they were bounced by the Toronto Raptors in round one.
How the Wizards incorporate 6-foot-11 enigma Dwight Howard will be a key to their season.
Same for the Celtics’ reintroduction of Hayward.
“We have to complement each other,” Tatum said. “Kyrie (Irving) is the leader of the team. Everybody has to do his part. It’s going to take a collective effort.”
Tatum said he returns with a better understanding of the grind. Last season included the birth of his son in addition to the schedule’s marathon. He wasn’t just playing. He was juggling.
“Some games I would have 22 points,” Tatum said. “The next night, I would have four. I couldn’t even dribble the ball. I was forgetting plays. After the All-Star break, I got that little time off. I really got back in the groove of things.”
Tatum averaged 16.7 points through his final 40 games, postseason included. For the season he shot 47.5 percent from the field, 43.4 percent from three and 82.6 percent from the free throw line. He became just the fifth rookie in league history — and first since Stephen Curry — to finish a rookie season with 1,000-plus points and a 3-point percentage better than 40.
That basketball bucket list is losing boxes at record speed. One of the biggest that remains unchecked will be incredibly challenging in the Warriors’ world.
“Our expectation is to win a championship,” Tatum said.
If his history has taught us anything, it’s that he is always closer to his goal than we think.