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Celtics star Jayson Tatum finds new motivation from Olympic experience

‘I have to elevate my level from being one of the top 10 to 15 players to a top-5 player’

LOS ANGELES — With a gold medal around his neck and an experience worth its weight, Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum believes his time at the Olympics helped him grow into a more confident and elite player.

“I just got to be better. I have to elevate my level from being one of the top 10 to 15 players to a top-5 player. I have to try to make everyone else around me better,” Tatum told The Undefeated during recent filming for the NBA Lane commercial to celebrate the league’s 75th-anniversary season.

It’s not like Tatum hasn’t been impressive already, as he averaged a career-best 26.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and shot 86.8% from the free throw line in 35.8 minutes per game during the 2020-21 season. The two-time All-Star has been to the NBA playoffs in each of his four seasons, but the furthest he has led the Celtics is to the Eastern Conference finals. While Tatum’s reputation as one of the league’s elite scorers is indisputable, the upper echelon of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo all have something he doesn’t — an NBA championship.

But by Tatum deciding to join the U.S. men’s basketball Olympic team shortly after Durant committed, he would eventually earn the ability to win at a challenging, stressful, rewarding and high level. Team USA’s dominant reputation took a hit when it shockingly lost exhibition games to Australia and Nigeria over the summer and dropped its Olympic opener to France. But with Durant leading the way, the U.S. team eventually overcame tough media scrutiny, regained its swagger and won the Olympic gold medal in Japan.

“It was amazing. Obviously, we had a rocky start in Vegas the first game,” Tatum said. “It just made it that much sweeter. A lot of people were doubting us. They were questioning whether we could win or not.”

Making it even tougher for Team USA, and all Olympians for that matter, no family or loved ones could join them for support in Tokyo due to the coronavirus pandemic. Tatum is very close to his young son, Jayson “Deuce” Tatum Jr., his parents and other family members who may have made the trek to Japan. USA Basketball’s players and staff were sequestered in a hotel in Tokyo where they were not allowed to leave other than for games and practice due to pandemic restrictions. If you wanted local renowned sushi, the only option was the hotel restaurant. As for Japan’s beautiful sights, Team USA members had to look out the bus window.

Following the early struggles and spending so much time together, it was inevitable that Tatum and his USA Basketball teammates strongly bonded in their rugged journey to win gold.

“It was a unique experience where we couldn’t bring our family. We were really isolated, so we had to grow closer together. It was a hell of a feeling sacrificing your summer and time from your family to accomplish something special,” Tatum said.

In 2007, NBA great Kobe Bryant was in his prime and debuted with Team USA, playing in the FIBA Americas Championship to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games. James and Carmelo Anthony were two young NBA stars who learned a lot from watching Bryant’s routine during those Olympic practices and in preparation for games. The 23-year-old Tatum had a similar opportunity to learn from Durant at 2020 Tokyo Games this summer.

Jayson Tatum (left) and Kevin Durant (right) of Team USA during the men’s gold-medal match against France at the Saitama Super Arena during the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Durant is known for taking part in a detailed shooting routine after practice in which he takes difficult shots that he will attempt in a game. The two-time NBA champion is tough on himself if he misses, and works a lot on balance. Tatum also had to guard Durant during practice scrimmages.

Tatum not only got a chance to witness Durant’s work ethic daily, he also watched Durant’s focus and ability to take his game to a high level to seal Olympic victories while backing him up. Durant averaged a team-best 20.7 points per game for Team USA, while Tatum was second as a reserve with 15.2 per game. No other U.S. players averaged more than 12 points at the Olympics.

“I plan to take what I learned into next season. I spent half of my summer playing against the best players in the world. I played against KD in practice, Book [Devin Booker] and all those guys. I feel like I got an early start to the season and will take it to the next step,” Tatum said.

Tatum joined the league as a skinny teenager when he was drafted by the Celtics with the third overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Now, the 6-foot-8 small forward appears much stronger than his listed weight. Playing in international competition with Team USA basketball also taught Tatum the importance of getting stronger, as he couldn’t rely on his stellar one-on-one skills since lanes were more clogged, defenders were physical and more zone defenses were used in the Olympics.

Tatum displayed his strength in the preseason by dunking with two hands over the Orlando Magic’s 6-foot-10, 270-pounder Wendell Carter Jr. When asked by The Undefeated how much weight he gained in muscle during the offseason, Tatum looked at his trainer and said, “What did I have?”

Tatum’s trainer responded with a smile, “Some things need to be kept secret.”

Team USA basketball forward Jerami Grant, who plays for the Detroit Pistons, doesn’t think Tatum’s offseason improvement will be far from a secret. On the court, mentally and due to Durant’s tutelage, Grant said, he certainly saw growth in the already stellar Tatum. And with an improved Tatum, the Celtics will have their eyes on securing the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, which the franchise hasn’t won since 2008.

“Jayson was great. Obviously, we watched him grow into being even a better player while he was there. His confidence was growing while he was there,” Grant said. “Being under KD, he pushed the confidence out of him to be on that stage and do what he was doing. He is one of the best talents in the league.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.