The Lakers have more young players on their roster than they’re normally given credit for. Two of their most key role players, in fact — Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso — are 25 and 26 years old, respectively.
But one could be forgiven for thinking that the rest of the team is old, because the Lakers haven’t exactly made a habit out of showcasing their really young players this year. Second-round pick Talen Horton-Tucker, his fellow rookie Devontae Cacok and 22-year-old Kostas Antetokounmpo (the latter two of whom are on two-way contracts) are dead last on the Lakers in total minutes during the regular season (if one doesn’t count J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters, who have yet to appear in a regular season game due to only just joining the team). Cacok has yet to even appear in a regular-season game for the Lakers, and he made the All G-League First Team.
Cacok shouldn’t feel too bad, though, because Horton-Tucker and Antetokounmpo have only played 5 total minutes each for the parent team. For context, that is tied with Zach Norvell Jr., who is no longer on the team. Such is the tough life for young guys hoping to play on a contender.
So when most of the Lakers’ regular contributors were announced to either be sitting out or limited in the Lakers’ final scrimmage in the bubble, it was clear that Lakers head coach Frank Vogel would be unleashing his young guys to give his coaching staff and the front office an extended look at them. Before the game started, I asked Vogel what he’s learned about those guys during this pseudo training camp at Disney World in his first lengthy amount of time with all of them, and he said they’ve all impressed him in different ways.
“The two big guys have very different skillsets, and I trust both of them. If we needed to go to them in these seeding games, or in the playoffs, they have unique skill sets that they’re exceptional at,” Vogel said. “(And) Talen has really been one of the most impressive players since the restart... We’re excited about all three of those young men.”
Vogel and others have buzzed about how Horton-Tucker has looked behind closed doors previously in camp, but this was one of the first times he’s gotten to share his thoughts on his pair of two-way big men. It’s safe to say he’s a fan of their potential.
“Devontae is just a monster with his aggressiveness on the boards, his physical play, his hustle aspect to his game. He just impacts the game,” Vogel said. “Kostas has incredible length and has shown promise as an elite rim protector, can fit right along in the line with JaVale and Dwight and the length that we present at the basket. Both of those guys have bright futures and I would trust using them if we needed to.”
Cacok and Antetokounmpo showed the skills that Vogel talked about to varying degrees in the ensuing scrimmage. Cacok was especially productive, scoring 11 points on 5-7 shooting and snatching 10 rebounds in just 13 minutes of playing time, efficiency that led Spectrum SportsNet game analyst and Lakers legend Mychal Thompson to compare Cacok to Wilt Chamberlain and call for him to start. As with all things with Thompson, whether he was serious or not is unclear, but the fact that Cacok’s output makes wondering that a genuine question is a testament to how good he looked.
As usual, Antetokounmpo wasn’t quite as good as his fellow two-way guy, but he still managed to get 9 points and 8 rebounds in 22 minutes, which isn’t bad. He’s still a little hyperactive about jumping at nearly every shot around the rim, but that’s a pretty standard bad habit for young big men, and not impossible to fix.
Horton-Tucker was less impressive than those two, scoring just 3 points on 1-5 shooting to go with 3 assists and 4 turnovers. He made a few nice passes, but a coming out party it was not. Still, he remains the youngest player in the NBA after only recently turning 19, so hope is not quite lost just yet, and prior to the game, Vogel reiterated how impressive Horton-Tucker has been in the Lakers’ scrimmages amongst themselves.
“He just plays with a poise that’s beyond his years and he’s shot the ball well from the perimeter, he’s put it down on the floor, he’s used his defensive foot speed and toughness along with his wingspan to make an impact on that end as well,” Vogel said.
Those qualities were not exactly on display in spades against Washington, but that was just one game. And none of these three guys are likely to play much more than the five minutes two of them played this season in the playoffs, barring injuries or truly outstanding performances in the team’s continuing practices. Still, it’s somewhat-promising to hear that they’re making such good impressions on Vogel, because even if he has to say nice things to some degree, he doesn’t have to be that nice.
Cacok, Horton-Tucker and Antetokounmpo all seem to have chances to turn themselves into real, meaningful players. It just probably won’t be in these playoffs.