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Basketball: USA's promising youngsters Devin Booker and Jayson Tatum hunt glory at Tokyo Olympics

The future looks bright for Team USA, with young superstars such as Tatum and Booker coming into their own.

Olympic-bound NBA stars Jayson Tatum and Devin Booker
Devin Booker of The Phoenix Suns and Jayson Tatum of The Boston Celtics (Source: Mass Live)

Ananth Narasimman

Updated: 21 July 2021 12:34 PM GMT

It was not too long ago that former Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge was criticized for trading the number one draft pick, in a loaded 2017 draft class, to the Philadelphia 76ers. Ainge, in hindsight, expected to get a decent return of assets in return for the top pick while having the ability to draft the player he needed.

A 6'8' forward with the explosive ability and a polished offensive arsenal for someone that relatively young. Jayson Tatum came into the draft as a forward with good length, size and an uncanny ability to get buckets when needed.

His assortment of moves helped him gain a notorious reputation to score at will, and being coached by the legendary Coach K at Duke helped him take his game to the next level. There were still doubts about how he could fit into the league with his perceived lack of effort on the defensive end.

Tatum's ability and skillsets on the offensive end were never in doubt, but the league tilting toward helping more offensive-minded players made it more necessary to scout talent that had both the ability to score and stop somebody from scoring.

One of the biggest drawbacks in his game was his inconsistent intensity on defense, and a competitive desire to lock his opponent down, according to scouts who made his draft profiles. Ainge stuck to his decision and showed faith in Tatum, and believed in his ability to lead the team to the Larry O'Brien trophy.

The Boston Celtics are the most successful franchise in league history, apart from the Los Angeles Lakers, with each winning 17 titles. Legends like Bill Russel, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo are a few illustrious names to have the privilege of donning the historic green jersey.

Jayson Tatum has the ability and talent levels to have his Jersey hang up on the rafters with the rest of the greats.

Also Read: A look at the USA basketball team for the Tokyo Olympics led by Kevin Durant

Fast forward to April 2021, Tatum dropped a career-high 60 points, helping the Celtics win one of the best comeback games in the history of the league. He obliterated the Spurs defense with a flurry of jab steps, step-back jumpers, driving the lane and finding open teammates for easy buckets.

Tatum looked like the star Ainge expected him to be when the GM traded the number 1 pick and drafted him at 3. His exploits in the league earned him the respect he deserved from his peers and helped him gain his first all-star selection post his sophomore year.

LeBron James gave Tatum the highest praise after a dominant 41-point game against the Lakers in 2020 when he said, "The kid is special, obviously that's a reason he's a first-time All-Star, and he's been special all year."

For someone of LeBron James' caliber to point out Tatum's ability shows that the young star is ready to take the mantle from older stars in the league.

The best part of his rise in the league is his desire to prove himself on both ends of the court. Tatum turned what might have been his drawbacks into a strength by picking up the intensity on the defensive end of the field.

The results showed on the court and helped him gain the best defensive rating on his team when needed despite them possessing elite defenders such as Marcus Smart. After a disappointing FIBA World Cup due to a nagging injury, the young star has now turned his attention toward attaining Olympic glory for his country.

With highly skilled players such as Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard on the roster, this would be the best opportunity for Tatum to kickstart his national team career with Olympic gold.

Also Read: Basketball: The five Darkhorses looking to take team USA's Olympic crown

Back in 2016, it was the farewell tour of the late great legend Kobe Bean Bryant whose 20-year exploits in the league left both fans and players stunned. Kobe was an idol for the next generation, who grew up idolizing him and wanting to be more like him. Bryant was the Michael Jordan for the next generation.

The Mamba meant as much to the upcoming stars as MJ meant to him, and it was no different with a young 6'6' shooting guard from Moss Point, Mississippi. It was Kobe's last game in Phoenix, and he toiled, scoring a meager 17 on the way to a defeat in Phoenix.

It was not the fairytale ending that people would have expected for someone who has dominated a team during the peak like the way Kobe dominated the Suns.

What was special is what happened postgame, Booker got to meet his idol, chop it up with him, and in the end, Kobe signed his shoes and gave them as a token of his respect and appreciation for Book. It meant a lot to the young star not only because it was memorabilia from his idol's last game, but the message on the shoe signed by the legend.

That message stuck with Book, who used that as an inspiration to elevate his game to another level.

Former Suns GM Ryan McDonough explained how much the gesture meant to the young star in an interview with "The Zach Gelb Show," "Devin's basketball hero, his role model is Kobe Bryant. We played a game when I was GM of the team, one of Kobe's last games. I think it was his last game in Phoenix.

After the game, he and Booker hugged and exchanged jerseys, and Kobe gave Devin his shoes and signed them and said, 'Be legendary, Kobe."It meant so much to him that Kobe did that, that when Kobe tragically passed away … Devin got that tattooed on his body, I believe he's embraced that 'Be legendary' mantra and [has] run with it.

They're different people, with different personalities. But some of the maniacal work ethic, that competitive spirit, that relentless determination to do anything to win that Kobe Bryant had, Devin Booker has it. And I think that's why, in my opinion, given his age and the age of most of the core of the Phoenix Suns, the team's ahead of schedule.", reports Fox Sports.

Kobe Bryant's Message To Devin Booker (Source: Bleacher Report)
Devin Booker's uncanny ability to score, along with a fierce competitive desire a lot like Kobe, and that helped separate him from the rest of his peers and put up video game numbers like the historic 70-point game.
Despite having individual success, Book had to perennially struggle with a Phoenix team that was more close to the lottery than the playoffs until last year in the NBA Bubble. The hiring of Monty Williams as a head coach helped kick off an unbeaten run in the bubble that showed that Phoenix was ready to get back to competing with the best.
The addition of Chris Paul put the Suns over the top, and also gave them a veteran who is one among the league's best leaders if not the best, to help guide Book. With all the right pieces in place, Phoenix and Booker embarked on a historic run that led to the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis.
Booker continued to shine and score when his team needed a clutch shot. He also became the player to score the most points in his playoffs debut. Book has Kobe's last message to him, which he has tattooed on his arm and uses as inspiration to help him reach the heights his idol knew he could reach.
The first stop for Book would be the Larry O'Brien trophy, and hopefully, he could then carry the momentum of being a champion into the Olympics to lead the USA to the Gold.
Team USA has had a rich history of legendary players that have always made an impact both on and off the court. The future looks equally bright with young superstars such as Tatum and Booker hopefully helping them dominate for another decade.
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