When Talen Horton-Tucker sits down to do an interview, he always offers a pretty quick reminder that in a lot of ways, he’s still a typical 20-year-old kid. The second-year Lakers guard hasn’t done many sit-downs with the media yet — a side effect of barely playing during his rookie season — but when he has, he always starts out by plopping himself down hard in the chair waiting for him, almost collapsing into it in the haphazard way only young people without constant aches and pains do do, and immediately doing the first thing most his age do when presented with a mirror (or in this case, a video screen): Fixing his hair, and making sure he looks good for the video that’s about to be taken of his remarks. This is evidently such a habit that staffers have joked with him in the past as he does it, telling him not to worry, that he’ll look good for his mom when the video drops, reminiscent of the encouragement received by a child at school picture day.
In most other ways, though, Horton-Tucker is not your typical 20-year-old. For one thing, he plays for the Lakers, the outlier among outliers when it comes to professional achievements, but even among NBA players, he’s fairly unique. Most 6’4 guards don’t have a seemingly endless (but actually 7’1) wingspan, or hands (9.5 inches long) that rank as the third-largest in the history of the NBA combine.
During his first year in the NBA, Horton-Tucker didn’t get many chances to show off those attributes for the Lakers. After all, the 2019 second-round pick is still shockingly young, just 126 days older than James Wiseman, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and very much still developing. But after impressing when thrown into the fire in the second round of the playoffs, he’s had what multiple Lakers observers have described as a standout training camp, and got to show the world the progress he’s made during his first preseason game.
Horton-Tucker didn’t shoot well in his opportunity to start in the exhibition opener — just 35.2% from the field — but he did shoot a lot, taking 17 shots in a clear display of his hunger to show what he can do for this team while getting to the rim at will to score 19 points and lead them to an 87-81 win over the Clippers. But while his talent and desire to be great have caught the notice of his teammates and coaches, it might be his humble attitude that’s impressed them most.
“He’s going to be a great player. He is extremely young, but he has a certain type of poise and maturity to his game,” said teammate Kyle Kuzma, who has consistently pumped up Horton-Tucker publicly while also trying to serve as an example for him of the importance of patience for a young player on a contending team.
“He continues to impress,” added Lakers head coach Frank Vogel earlier in the week. “The young man has a great attitude and great spirit. He comes to work every day with humility, and he just goes out there and kicks people’s butts, quite frankly. He’s a heck of a talent.”
When informed of his coach’s description of his camp performances during the first walk-off interview of his NBA career, Horton-Tucker shows his youth again, sheepishly smiling and shaking his head as sideline reporter Mike Trudell of Spectrum SportsNet repeats the “kicks people’s butts” line.
“I’m really just trying to come out here and play. Do whatever the team needs me to do, fill any void that they need. I just want to come out here and play my hardest, and whenever I get the opportunity, capitalize on it,” Horton-Tucker said on the broadcast.
Horton-Tucker repeats these talking points in nearly every interview he gives, saying nearly the exact same thing verbatim as he spoke to reporters at shootaround on the morning of Friday’s game. But while one could just chalk this up to media training, his humility seems to come from a genuine place, considering that it’s a quality his teammates and coaches describe as well.
That work ethic and genuine desire to improve would also explain why he’s so quickly endeared himself to this team’s veterans, with Jared Dudley spending all offseason saying how “huge” he’d be for the Lakers this season, admitting that Horton-Tucker was “destroying in the bubble in practices.” Dudley also joined LeBron James in quickly taking to Twitter after the game to praise Horton-Tucker’s preseason performance.
Telling you right now! This kid is flat out SPECIAL! Mark my words https://t.co/KOYtlFxNVV— LeBron James (@KingJames) December 12, 2020
Such potential is why Frank Vogel has admitted he’s been harder on Horton-Tucker than he has been on the rest of the Lakers’ roster during training camp, something Horton-Tucker says he welcomes.
“With coach being a little harder on me, I feel like it’s good for my development,” Horton-Tucker said. “Being able to learn as much as I can right now is the most important thing for me, so I just feel like anything that the coaches say to me or the players say to me is good, so I appreciate it.”
Vogel says that the biggest difference he’s noticed in Horton-Tucker this year in camp compared to his rookie season is the fact that he’s healthy — he was dealing with a nagging foot injury last year — and that his 3-point shot and body both look better after a year of work, and that he thinks all those changes have given Horton-Tucker more confidence. He was also impressed with how Horton-Tucker was able to impact the preseason opener without shooting well.
“I thought he looked really good,” Vogel said. “Talen, we want to put the ball in his hands in pick and rolls a lot, but he can attack in the open court, he can come off pin-downs and he’s a great second-side attacker in catch-and-shoot situations and attacking closeouts. He didn’t even finish well tonight at the rim, he’s still getting his legs under him a little bit, but he still had 19 and 9 and it was a big performance and a great start.”
My favorite THT play of the night. Just calmly takes all the pressure from Kawhi, spins out and uses the screen for his pull up. pic.twitter.com/WL3fJ6WoKw— UnwrittenRules (@UnwrittenRul3s) December 12, 2020
It was just one preseason game, but the flashes Horton-Tucker showed in it — in conjunction with his work ethic — did nothing to dissuade those around the team that believe his future is bright.
“He’s just a sponge. He loves basketball, he’s always in the gym, and he comes every day to practice and he’s great in practice. I expect big things in his future,” Kuzma said.
But while Horton-Tucker’s playoff performance and ravenous quest for preseason shots showed that he certainly doesn’t lack for confidence on the floor, off of it, he’s still just a kid who is too young to legally buy a drink, and like most people his age, he comes across as fairly soft-spoken there. While most 20-year-olds don’t have LeBron James tweeting about how special they are, Horton-Tucker doesn’t seem like he’s letting any of his unique existence go to his head, or taking it for granted. He’s just grateful for the support and opportunity the Lakers’ veterans and coaches have given him since he’s been with the team.
“I feel like with a year’s work and being able to be around professionals every day and see how they work, I feel like it prepared me to be in the position I am right now, just to be able to get a chance to actually play and show something I can do,” Horton-Tucker said. “I just learned how to be a professional at an early age. I feel like most guys don’t get that. Just being around the guys that we have this year, and the guys that we had last year was key for me to becoming who I am now. I just thank them and appreciate them.”
“This year I just want to come in and do whatever they ask of me, whatever I can do to help the team,” Horton-Tucker continued. “Just being able to get the opportunity to do that would be my main goal for this year. I want to win a championship. It’s going to be hard, but it’s something I want to do.”