When 19-year-old Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker was getting ready to make his debut in the NBA playoffs on Thursday night, the Lakers were huddled up, preparing to resume the second quarter. Horton-Tucker was just trying to get ready, to take everything in. Seemingly sensing that the youngest player in the NBA might be a little nervous, LeBron James stopped things to deliver a message on behalf of himself, and the rest of the Lakers’ veterans.
“He just told me to come in and stay focused, to do what I do. He told me that they got me,” Horton-Tucker recalled the next day. Lakers teammate Danny Green remembered that James told the rookie to just go out and play basketball, and that the vets would cover for any mistakes he made. Whatever the exact message was, though, it was clear that it had its intended effect.
“What better words can you get from LeBron as a 19-year-old?” Horton-Tucker said, practically beaming. “I just kinda went in there and just tried to do the best I could, and tried and get the win.”
Mission accomplished. Horton-Tucker may have only contributed a seemingly meager 5 points on 2-5 shooting in the victory, but watching the game, it was impossible not to see the spark that his doe-eyed enthusiasm gave the Lakers. The entire team, James included, was going wild for every play he made, and nearly everyone credited him for the spark he gave L.A. off the bench. He may not have played perfect basketball, but he was a +9 in a game the Lakers won by 10 points, and clearly injected the Lakers with a dose of energy and enthusiasm.
The Talen Horton-Tucker playoff experience had its ups and downs, but @sabreenajm and @RadRivas enjoyed every second of it:— Silver Screen & Roll (@LakersSBN) September 11, 2020
Horton-Tucker says he wasn’t told he was going to play until closer to the game, but continually repeated that he’s been “staying ready so I didn’t have to get ready” throughout the entire NBA restart. He added that he’s just been trying to do whatever the Lakers ask him to do, in practice and off the floor. He wants to soak in every bit of advice he gets from his veteran teammates, and says doing so was his whole goal when entering the bubble.
“What more could a kid ask for? Having those guys to look up to and try to model my game after every day has been great. I’m just taking it all in, and just trying to get better,” Horton-Tucker said.
He’s certainly done that, and the proof is in him playing more minutes in his playoff debut (7) than he did in the entire regular season prior to the NBA restart (5). He’s gotten himself in better shape over the mini offseason, and learned more ways to affect the game.
“There have been some benefits to that,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel of Horton-Tucker’s extra time to learn and improve during his first season in the NBA, although Vogel says that he still very much sees Horton-Tucker as a rookie.
“He didn’t play hardly at all before the seeding games this year. He played in the G League, got experience there, but I do still view him as an inexperienced rookie,” Vogel said.
Still, Vogel extensively credited South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl and the entire staff of L.A.’s G League team for helping Horton-Tucker get ready for this all season, and how much they’ve helped him grow. He called being able to keep Horton-Tucker and their other G Leaguers in the Lakers’ own gym, even while playing in the minor leagues, an “organizational win” that allows them to more closely monitor guys’ progress. It’s let him to stay more aware of how Horton-Tucker is progressing than he otherwise might be, and between all that and what he’s gotten to watch up close in the bubble, he’s liked what he’s seen from the kid.
“He’s a good basketball player that has a skillset that fits what we’re trying to do. I had confidence putting him in there, and he rewarded that,” Vogel said. “He can shoot, he can drive and he can guard. And he doesn’t try to force. He plays within himself for the most part, which is a talent in and of itself... Those things fit no matter what experience level you are or age you are.”
Vogel is far from the only one who thinks so.
“I’ve seen some special things from him,” Green said. “I think he’s going to be a great player in this league one of these days.”
How far away those days are remains to be seen, as does whether or not Horton-Tucker will even play much more in the bubble. He might continue to get opportunities, and he might not. He said he hasn’t spoken with Frank Vogel about it yet, and he doesn’t plan to.
“I’m just trying to embrace the moment that I’m in now,” Horton-Tucker said.
And from James on down, his teammates will have his back while he does so.
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