CLEVELAND – Jayson Tatum, dressed from head to toe in his green Celtics practice gear, walked into Quicken Loans Arena this morning for his first regular-season shootaround. He took a seat along the side of the court, and before he slipped on his black and white Nike sneakers, he took a moment to gaze up at the enormous video board hanging above the floor and the 20,000-plus seats, all of which were covered in white T-shirts, surrounding it.
“That’s awesome,” he said, as he smiled with tinge of astonishment.
Tatum’s first Opening Night has finally arrived.
The soft-spoken rookie is already feeling the enormity of this day, a day for which he has been waiting for 19-plus years.
“It was weird,” he said of waking up Tuesday morning, “because it’s what I’ve always been dreaming about, playing my first NBA regular-season game, and it’s finally here.
“It seems like time has flown by, because I can remember when I was a kid dreaming about this day.”
It’s funny that he phrased it in such a way, because not even his wildest dreams could have predicted what will unfold tonight.
Tatum will start at power forward for the Boston Celtics, the No. 1 seed in the East last season, as was confirmed by Brad Stevens. He will be playing against the best player in the world in LeBron James, and the defending Eastern Conference-champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
And it all will unfold on national television, at 8 p.m. on TNT.
Those are challenging conditions for any 19-year-old to handle. Jaylen Brown, Tatum’s teammate who made his debut just two days after his 20th birthday last season, faced off with similar circumstances as a rookie. He remembers it all quite vividly.
“I remember everything,” he told Celtics.com. “I remember what shoes I had on. I remember everything.
“I remember the pregame jitters,” he continued. “They’re going to be there.”
But Brown, who scored nine points on 3-of-4 shooting during his first NBA game, believes that Tatum has what it takes to overcome the challenges at hand.
“Jayson will be fine,” he said. “He’s played in big games, but he’ll probably be a little bit nervous tonight. There’s going to be a lot of talent tonight, but we’ve got his back.”
‘A lot of talent’ is probably an understatement. Cleveland boasts two former MVPs, two former Finals MVPs, another four-time All-Star, a former Sixth Man of the Year, one of the greatest shooters of all time, and many more capable players.
How should Tatum approach such a hefty challenge? Brown had a suggestion.
“What do you have to lose? You’ve got nothing to lose being a rookie on the basketball floor,” Brown said of the mindset Tatum should bring into the game. “If you do something bad, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, he’s just a rookie. He’ll learn.’ And if you do something great, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, he’s ready.’ So you don’t really have anything to lose.”
Brown then gave some insight as to how Tatum stacks up against the competition Boston will face tonight. After being asked why he’s confident that Tatum will fare well against James and former Celtic Jae Crowder, Brown gave an eyebrow-raising answer.
“I think his talent level exceeds or is just as good as some of the guys you just mentioned,” said Brown. “I think he’ll be fine. I think he can score the ball very well, and I think that’s his biggest threat being on the basketball floor. They have to guard him. They have to respect him.”
Respect is typically earned, not given, in the National Basketball Association, but everyone knows what Tatum can do when the ball is in his hands.
Tonight, that ball is likely to feel a bit heavy for Tatum as he attempts to overcome the anxiety that is associated with a player’s first professional game.
He entered this morning’s shootaround as a wide-eyed kid, and he’ll do the same tonight as he steps onto the floor for the opening tip. This kid, however, is poised and talented beyond his years, and those characteristics should go a long way toward pushing him toward success against James and the Cavaliers.