Celtics

Celtics coach Ime Udoka says playmaking is the next step for Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown in their ‘evolution’

Tatum and Brown averaged career highs in assists last season, but the Celtics still ranked toward the bottom of the league.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Celtics coach Ime Udoka wants to see Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown grow as playmakers.

The 2020-21 NBA season didn’t provide many bright spots for the Celtics.

Boston went 36-36 during the regular season, seeing its top players miss several games due to injuries and COVID-19 with the season ending in a first-round loss to Brooklyn.

A bright spot for the Celtics though was the continued growth of their young stars. Jayson Tatum, 23, and Jaylen Brown, 24, both averaged career highs in points per game, scoring 26.4 points and 24.7 points per game, respectively.

With Boston’s young All-Stars emerging as one of the league’s top-scoring duos, new Celtics coach Ime Udoka has a plan for what he wants Tatum and Brown to improve at next: playmaking.

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In an interview with ESPN’s “Jalen and Jacoby,” Udoka said the Celtics need to get better at playmaking, pinpointing Tatum and Brown as the guys who could help lead the way.

“We have multiple handlers. We have multiple playmakers. That’s an area where we need to see growth with Jaylen and Jayson,” Udoka said. “It’s not just scoring the basketball. It’s those guys initiating the offense and being better playmakers. That’s the next step in their evolution.”

In addition to posting career highs in scoring, both Tatum and Brown had career highs in assists last season, too. Tatum averaged 4.3 assists per game and Brown had 3.4 assists per game.

But the Celtics, as a whole, were toward the bottom of the league in assists last season. Their 23.5 assists per game were 25th in the league, leading to Udoka jokingly criticizing Brad Stevens at his introductory press conference to be the next head coach.

Udoka shared a plan on how Tatum and Brown can improve on their playmaking this upcoming season.

“They’re going to have the ball in their hands a ton,” Udoka said. “They scored a lot individually last year. It felt like at times it was ‘Your turn. My turn.’ We have a lot of good young talent on the floor. A lot of playmakers around them, we’d like them to initiate offense whether it’s not just looking to score the basketball.”

Udoka got off to a head start on his working relationship with Tatum. He was an assistant coach on the U.S. men’s basketball team that Tatum played on which won a gold medal at the Olympics.

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Tatum only dished out seven assists over the six Olympic games, but Udoka liked what he saw out of Tatum as an initiator in that stretch.

“Jayson took that role at the Olympics this year,” Udoka said. “He came off the bench, something he’s probably never done. He had great games and was the second-leading scorer behind Kevin [Durant]. But he was also a playmaker as well. [Coach Gregg Popovich] preached that as well. That’s something he saw a little bit this summer and something he can continue to grow on.”

Tatum and Brown won’t be solely tasked with the playmaking on this Celtics team. They reacquired Al Horford, who averaged 4.6 assists per game in his first three years in Boston, and added veteran point guard Dennis Schroder, who averaged 5.8 assists per game last season. And, of course, they return Marcus Smart, who had a team-high 5.7 assists per game in 2020-21.

While the Celtics lack an elite playmaker, Udoka thinks the Celtics can still create offense through several players.

“Many guys can bring it, even if it’s Al [Horford] pushing it on the break,” Udoka said. “We’ve got bigs who can pass the ball, handle the ball, and do different things. So, we have a lot of versatility with our lineups with Dennis Schroder and other guys who can make plays. I think we can be a team who can get up and down. We can play big ball. We can play small ball in a lot of different ways.”

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