Boston’s Jayson Tatum: ‘The kid is special.’ Just ask LeBron James.

LOS ANGELES — Boston’s Jayson Tatum chose to keep a postgame exchange with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James to himself.

James, however, didn’t hold back when asked what he thought of Tatum following Tatum’s career-high 41 points in Los Angeles’ 114-112 victory over Boston on Feb. 23.

"The kid is special," James said. "There’s a reason he’s a first-time All-Star. He’s been special all year."

James followed up on Instagram with a photo of him and Tatum at the scorer’s table getting ready to check in and the caption, “That boi to the left of me is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM.”

Tatum, who turned 22 on Tuesday, is playing the best basketball of his career, and his star is bursting game by game. It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment Tatum’s ascent began because he has had a strong season.

But let’s start with his 39-point, 12-rebound performance in a victory against Charlotte on Dec. 22.

Before that game, Tatum averaged an All-Star worthy 23.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals and shot 45% from the field and 39.6% on 3-pointers. But starting with that Hornets game, he is averaging 25.7 points while shooting 48.2% from the field and 43.5% on 3's.

“Tatum has reached a new height – superstar level,” Celtics teammate Jaylen Brown said. “We’ve all got to continue to improve with him. The way he’s playing is unreal. We’ve got to continue to find ways to allow him to reach his potential. … I’ve enjoyed watching him.”

In February, he averaged at least 30 points, becoming just the fifth Celtic to reach that average for a month, joining John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Paul Pierce and Isaiah Thomas.

He scored a career-high 41 points in that Lakers game and has scored at least 30 points in seven of his past 10 games, including four straight.

“That’s what he does. … He’s been at that level for us for a long time,” coach Brad Stevens said.

Jayson Tatum became just the fifth Celtic player to average 30 points in a month. (Photo: Troy Wayrynen, USA TODAY Sports)

Stevens is partially right. Go back to Boston’s 2018 Eastern Conference finals series against Cleveland. Tatum, then just a rookie, was the second-best player on the court after James.

Stevens is also partially wrong. Tatum’s stats were fine last season, but the Celtics were caught up in Kyrie Irving drama. And Irving and Tatum have a friendship, a Duke connection, and at one point they shared the same agent.

Tatum acknowledged in an ESPN interview he wasn’t always happy and felt caught in the middle. He said it impacted his play, especially defensively.

Tatum’s offense needed refinement after last season in which he didn’t score in the paint enough, took too many mid-range shots and not enough 3's. He went to work in the offseason with trainer Drew Hanlen and has an on-going dialogue and workout routine with Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga.

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This season, he has reduced his mid-range shots (he still shoots them though) and has taken more 3's already this season (389) than he did last season (311), increasing his above-the-break 3-point percentage by nearly three points. He has also taken more shots inside of 5 feet.

He’s a smarter and more efficient shooter and scorer, and he has taken Stevens’ challenge to become a better defender. He has the ability to develop into one of those elite two-way players, like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

 “The first thing that comes to mind is just how much does it mean to you to be great?” Tatum said. “How hard are you willing to work to — how much are you willing to sacrifice to be as great as you can?”

He has to improve on both ends, especially learning how to make plays out of a double-team because he’s going to receive that kind of attention when he has the basketball.

He was just 21 when he made this year’s All-Star team, and Celtics great Paul Pierce said Tatum is “going to be better than me.”

At All-Star Weekend, Tatum, who also has a chance to make his first All-NBA team, said, “I’m just trying to earn the respect of the guys that I looked up to.”

Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt

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