EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — While furious gusts of wind buffet the outside of the UCLA Health Training Center as the waning hours of 2019 begin to near single digits, Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker is inside the team’s training facility trying to catch his breath.
He’s hunched over. Hands on both knees and gulping for air as the team’s G League head coach, Coby Karl, bellows out instructions for the next drill.
The Chicago native is noticeably quiet today compared to his other teammates. Kostas Antetokounmpo shouts “cash money!” with great delight every time Andre Ingram fires off a three. Devontae Cacok lets out a primal scream that could likely be heard miles away as he hangs from the rim. And Travis Wear lets his frustration known after his team loses a intrasquad scrimmage with simple — but direct — curses of “f---.”
Horton-Tucker does nothing of the sort. His only expressive moment on the day is an apologetic pat of his own chest after turning the ball over, letting out an almost inaudible “my bad.”
As the players progress to run through 3-on-0 fast breaks, sideline-out-of-bounds plays and late game sets, it is difficult to ignore the familiar and legendary names plastered on the walls behind this tired 19-year-old. Worthy. Johnson. Abdul-Jabbar. West. Bryant.
Hallowed team symbols. But also, cruel reminders of the towering expectations for anyone who steps foot onto this, or any other Los Angeles-based hardwood. Especially a rookie. And it is this balancing act between the past, present and future which Horton-Tucker will need to navigate if he wants to accomplish his goal: Playing in the NBA.
This past June, the Lakers traded a 2020 second round pick and cash considerations to the Orlando Magic in order to select Horton-Tucker, despite reportedly never working him out or meeting him at the combine.
For many who did not closely follow the freshman’s game at Iowa State, the move was perceived as a potential favor to his sports agency — Klutch Sports. The same group who happens to currently represent the likes of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But while this contextual nugget may have played a role, it does not take much more than a gander at Horton-Tucker’s unique physique to see why the Lakers were intrigued by him.
According to last May’s combine data collection, the teenager measured in at 6’2” (without shoes), 235 pounds (8.4 percent body fat; tied for highest among all guards), a wingspan that surpassed 7’1” (the longest among all guards) and monster hand dimensions of 9.5 inches long (third-most among all players measured; just a whisker below Kawhi Leonard’s “Klaw”) and 9.75 inches wide.
Like others in attendance, ESPN’s draft expert Jonathan Givony, marveled at the assortment of anthropometrics, claiming they ranked “among the top marks in basketball history” and are a “huge outlier.”
In person, and after personally shaking his hand, these numbers and accolades somehow still fail in doing Horton-Tucker justice. Although he is now noticeably leaner than when he was drafted, he himself admits his physical tools have helped pave a road to where he has gotten in his basketball career.
“I feel like having those things have helped me a lot. Like having a 7’1” wingspan and a unique body, you can do (things) and get to places that other people couldn’t,” Horton-Tucker told Silver Screen and Roll after wrapping up a recent practice.
But despite his hulking frame and endlessly engulfing length making his measurables instantly loud attention-getters, Horton-Tucker is soft spoken. He answers questions quickly, but cautiously, almost as if teetering across a tight rope. He gently asks for clarification on a specific inquiry, and apologizes for veering off topic. Subtle reminders that despite legally being an adult, he is still very much a teenager, and one not used to even this relatively minor level of attention at that.
There are other examples of course. Such as staring at his baseball glove of a hand in bewilderment after his teammate Marcus Allen canned a corner three over his outstretched contest. Or when his smile widened when pointing out a few local shelter dogs that wandered in for an afternoon photoshoot. Tiny cracks of endearing naiveté that come through in just a few shared moments with him.
Horton-Tucker is a young man who just so happens to be on arguably the most popular and best team in the NBA. A team which he is still not quite a participating member of. It’s an opportunity that’s a blessing, but also a challenge.
“Of course everyone wants to play. You see everybody, all your other friends getting time, but everybody has their own different journey,” Horton-Tucker said. “When you are on a team like this that is very loaded and veteran-led, you got to wait your turn and try to listen to every bit of information that they give to you.”
As someone who only just recently turned 19 and is the second youngest player in the NBA — the latest example of his youth coming when was shown not knowing what a pager was on the jumbotron at Staples Center — Horton-Tucker predictably has not been given much run in the NBA, only playing five minutes total so far with Los Angeles’ parent squad during a time when they’re very much contenders.
But although Horton-Tucker has only had a cup of coffee in the professional ranks so far during his rookie season, he doesn’t lack his fair share of fans.
As the youngest player on the team, and it’s most tantalizing prospect, Horton-Tucker has quickly cultivated a cult following amongst the Lakers’ fanbase. With every highlight reel South Bay’s social media team tweets out, herds of fans can be found flooding their mentions with requests for him to play and countless adoring nicknames.
The most common one is a play on both his name and physical stature: Talen Horton-Thiccer. It’s a moniker and following that Horton-Tucker says he was unaware of.
“I really didn’t even think people knew who I was,” he says, laughing and then quickly smothering his face with his massive hand to hide a brief second of what might have been embarrassment. “I really didn’t even know that. That’s crazy.”
Horton-Tucker’s admirers do not end in the stands, however. Although missing out on Summer League and the preseason entirely with a foot injury, his brief stints with the Lakers have already impressed members of the organization, including the club's head coach Frank Vogel.
“He’s had some monster performances,” Vogel said. “You look at someone that age and you feel like they probably can’t contribute right away with a playoff-caliber team, but he’s had some moments where you ask ‘maybe he can.’ We’ll continue to keep an eye on that, and we’re encouraged by what he’s doing in his first year.”
As currently constructed, the Lakers could actually use a player with Horton-Tucker’s skillset. Beside his aforementioned physical gifts, which would come in handy against opposing perimeter players, he’s also flashed tremendous playmaking ability and deceptive shake off the dribble.
With that said, what he could potentially offer in terms of on-court production likely is still very much theoretical, as despite his eye-popping highlights, he is still noticeably raw — shooting just 38.3% from the field and 29.8% from three in the G League — and continues to adjust to an entirely new chapter of his life both professionally, and personally.
Fortunately, it seems nearly everyone within the organization also understands this, and have not only been helpful in terms of his development, but more importantly supportive while he’s going through it. The Lakers’ players have a group chat, and when they see Horton-Tucker making highlights in the G League, they send the clips around to each other to support their rookie teammate.
“He’s been great. He’s been a great rookie for us when he’s with the team,” said Anthony Davis, one of Horton-Tucker’s biggest supporters on the team. “He’s always doing everything that he shows us he can do in practice.”
Besides just being members of the same agency, Davis and Horton-Tucker also both grew up in Chicago. It’s the place where the multi-time all-star said he first heard of the promising young player, and the source of a common tie that has brought them closer together.
“Anytime I get a chance to help him I try to. I try to talk to him if he’s struggling with something, or if I see something I try to help him out. I know him from Chicago when he played in high school, so I was always trying to be there for him and help him through these challenges,” Davis said.
“The league can be challenging, especially in your rookie year. A lot of ups and downs. That quote unquote ‘rookie wall,’” Davis continued. “I just try to help him as much as possible.”
Horton-Tucker’s childhood dream of being a Laker does not make him uncommon. Heck, nearly any kid who has ever picked up a basketball has probably dreamily spent time in their room or on the basketball court pondering what it would be like to suit up in purple and gold at least once in their life.
But this goal was not just Horton-Tucker's alone. It was one he shared with his mother, Shirley Horton.
Arguably an even bigger Laker and basketball fan than her son, Shirley took great care to share her love for the team with Talen. In her job as a schoolteacher, Shirley would go so far as to even tell her students that Kobe Bryant was her husband. A facade that ended the day her actual husband showed up on campus, much to her pupils’ collective disappointment.
Although Talen has now entered adulthood, that childhood influence and bond with his mother centered around basketball, the Lakers and Bryant still shines through whenever she is mentioned.
With a wide and earnest smile, he points to the shoes on his feet, which are black, white and gold checkered throughout. Between winded breathes while beating away the last droplets of sweat from practice, he explains that he has had these same type of sneakers (he’s currently wearing the Nike Zoom Kobe 4 Protro/“Del Sol” colorway) since fifth grade. Roughly the age where his hobby became something he wanted to do forever.
For him. For her.
“She used to always have me in Kobe stuff because she loved Kobe. I always had a Kobe jersey, or any type of Lakers’ jersey throughout my closet. It was crazy,” Talen said.
Because of that love, Talen getting drafted by the Lakers was a moment he says was like “everything worked itself out,” and the “cherry on top” after making it to the promised land of the NBA. And although his first year with the team likely is not exactly what he envisioned in his childhood dreams — few kids fantasize about developing in the G League — it's hard to argue that the stars did not align in his favor.
While he still wears those same sneakers today, almost serving as a reminder or tribute to his mother and the years they spent dreaming together about what was then perceived as an almost impossible wish, the only jersey he will now drape over his back from here on out will be his own, and he can’t wait to don the NBA version of it more consistently.
“I just want to sharpen my tools, because I want to play in the NBA,” Talen said. “That’s the main goal. That’s what I want to do.”
Harrison Faigen contributed to this report. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.