As JaVale McGee walked down a hallway in the Lakers’ Disney World hotel, lightly teasing two-way player Kostas Antetokounmpo about how many bags he had for a player so new to the league, another figure quietly wandered into the frame of McGee’s latest vlog.
At first it was hard to recognize them, racking the rolodex of Lakers before realizing: Wait... is that Talen Horton-Tucker?
The Lakers’ rookie has clearly lost a ton of weight, and it’s not the only way he’s making an impression on the purple and gold as they look to restart the season. Head coach Frank Vogel singled out Horton-Tucker as a player having “a great camp” for the team after the coaching staff didn’t get a ton of time with him while he spent most of the year in the G League. And in his first chance in months to impact how the organization sees him, Horton-Tucker is taking advantage.
“His body changed,” Vogel said. “(He) dropped a lot of weight, got himself in great shape... He also did a lot of work on his shot. His perimeter shot really has improved throughout the course of this year and because of those two things, he’s had some success.
“It’s really brought a lot of confidence to him as a young player, and that’s what’s showing up right now, is how confident he’s playing. He’s playing beyond his years in these practices and scrimmages.”
But while Horton-Tucker may be playing beyond his years right now, that doesn’t mean he’s immune to being treated like a rookie. In that aforementioned video from McGee, Horton-Tucker can be seen carrying his teammates bags — “rookie duties,” said McGee — and he still gets “picked on a little bit and just treated like a rookie,” according to Vogel.
For Lakers teammate Kyle Kuzma, that light hazing wasn’t so long ago, and it’s led him to stay in Horton-Tucker’s eear all year, telling him to keep his head up and keep working.
“A lot of times when you’re a young guy, you always just take the blame, take the fall for a lot of things, a lot of mishaps in practice,” Kuzma said, and it was hard not to hear a bit of empathy and understanding in his voice, speaking like someone well aware of how difficult it can be to exist as a young player on a veteran team.
“It’s frustrating,” Kuzma continued. “I try to tell him that it’s part of the process and everybody goes through it. He’s just a young guy that wants to take everything in. He’s a sponge and loves basketball, loves being around us and loves everything about it.”
And while Kuzma and Dion Waiters have developed relationships with Horton-Tucker and are trying to give the 19-year-old tips on adjusting to the NBA, for some on the team, this camp has been their first real chance to get to know the reserved and quiet rookie.
“I personally did not spend a whole lot of time with him individually,” Vogel said. “I’ve enjoyed that process. He’s a he’s a quiet young man, but he’s he’s confident and you know, he’s a joy to be around.”
Horton-Tucker showed promise in the G League this season — averaging 18.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists — but those flashes of potential came in addition to some moments where the fact that he is the youngest player in the NBA and the raw nature of his skills were on full display. As a second-round pick on a contender, he wasn’t expected to contribute immediately, something he has said he understood, as badly as he wants to play.
But with the Lakers missing Rajon Rondo for the next several weeks and Avery Bradley opting out of the entire restart, Horton-Tucker appears primed to at least get an opportunity to play some spot minutes during the team’s seeding games and scrimmages in Orlando. Judging by the buzz around the Lakers and the amount of times he’s been brought up unprompted, Horton-Tucker has spent his training camp making an argument for as many of those minutes as possible on a team trying to win a title.
“Talen is a great player. He’s just young,” Kuzma said. “Him just being a young guy, I’m trying to help him.”
Those efforts may not ultimately matter a ton in the end this year, but all of this buzz is (at minimum) a good sign for the development of one of the few young players on the Lakers’ roster moving forward.