Is Jayson Tatum a top-10 player in the NBA?
That was an ongoing debate last season as the 22-year-old Celtics forward took a big step forward in his third year in the NBA, averaging 23.4 points and 7 rebounds per game en route to earning All-NBA Third Team honors. He was even better in the playoffs, averaging 25.7 points and 10 rebounds per game.
ESPN's new ranking of the best players in the NBA for the 2020-21 season is sure to reignite that debate, as they have Tatum just missing out on top-10 status, coming in at No. 11.
The 10 players they have ahead of Tatum are -- in order from one to 10 -- Lakers forward LeBron James, Lakers forward Anthony Davis, Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, Nets forward Kevin Durant, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Warriors guard Steph Curry, Rockets (for now) guard James Harden, and Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
"Now with a signed max deal and as the franchise cornerstone, is Tatum the kind of player who can tilt a playoff series his team's direction or is he ultimately a great No. 2?," asks Brian Windhorst in his write-up on Tatum. "You could argue the future of the Celtics is bound in this question. He has all the tools -- the size, the talent, the multipositional skill and the instinct -- to rise to this level. But he's been inconsistent enough for questions to linger."
Tatum did have a few very quiet first halves this past postseason, but even in those games he generally came alive in the second half. So while the ESPN write-up might seem a bit on the critical side, it's probably fair if we're talking about taking the next step and becoming a true bona fide No. 1 star on a championship team.
Looking through the rest of the list, you have to go down to the 30s before you get to another Celtic. Jaylen Brown ranks 32nd, while Marcus Smart comes in at 37.
Kemba Walker just barely cracks the top 50 at 48, plummeting from his No. 17 ranking last year. The obvious reason for that is his lingering knee issues, of which Tim Bontemps writes, "There may be no bigger question in the Eastern Conference than what shape Walker's knee will be in when the playoffs arrive."
Gordon Hayward, who departed the Celtics for the Hornets in a sign-and-trade this offseason, ranks 45th. Former Celtic Kyrie Irving, who is returning from a season-ending shoulder injury, lands at 25.