Knowing what Lakers head coach Frank Vogel prioritizes, it’s not hard to guess that the reason that Talen Horton-Tucker got a DNP-CD in the team’s first game against the San Antonio Spurs this week was that Vogel didn’t like the way the second-year guard defended in his previous game against the Portland Trail Blazers.
And if that was indeed the lesson Vogel was trying to teach, it would seem it mostly took when Vogel dusted Horton-Tucker off for the team’s second game in San Antonio. Horton-Tucker was far from perfect defensively, but he was engaged in the 109-103 victory, using his inflatable tube man arms to disrupt passing lanes, swipe one steal and block two shots.
Perhaps more impressively, when defended by Horton-Tucker, the Spurs shot just 1-10 (10%), according to NBA.com’s tracking data, the lowest percentage allowed by any Laker, and while such stats — and one-game sample sizes of defensive rating — aren’t perfect, the Lakers were also by far at their best defensively with Horton-Tucker in the game on Friday.
Does any of that mean Horton-Tucker is going to be a Defensive Player of the Year or All-Defensive Team candidate any time soon? Probably not, but it is evidence that the 20-year-old can learn from his mistakes, as the Blazers made every single shot they took while guarded by him in his previous appearance. And after all, the Lakers coaching staff can stress defense all they want, but it’s like LeBron James likes to say: The best teacher in life is experience.
“I think every game for him is another example of a teaching moment for him,” James said on Friday. ‘He’s experiencing some great moments for himself as a pro. Obviously in the preseason he played extremely well, but you (have to) take another step, because the regular season is different than the preseason.”
Horton-Tucker is learning that in more ways than one, because not only are the players he’s going up against far more talented and engaged than what he was seeing during the preseason, but his role is completely changed. During the preseason, Horton-Tucker was basically given free reign to play like a star, getting 31.6 minutes per game and being allowed to handle the ball a ton while putting up incredible numbers. Once the regular season began, Frank Vogel and the Lakers coaching staff gave him a different edict: Defend, play off the ball and do the little things if you want to earn playing time. His minutes have been cut to 12.5 minutes per game, the lowest of any consistent rotation player.
Despite that limited playing time, though, he’s still clearly making an impression on his teammates, especially the two stars at the top of the roster.
“He comes in and does his job,” said Anthony Davis. “He’s a guy who’s young but seems like he’s been in the league for a while. He likes to learn, he’s not afraid of the moment, and we know that we have a guy who is — 19, 20, something like that? — where we can throw him in the fire and he’ll be ready to go. So we for sure got a steal in the draft.”
James is a bit more reserved in his praise, but it’s clear he likes the progress he’s seeing from the player who was only about two years old when James was drafted in 2003.
“He’s going to continue to learn, he’s going to continue to get the opportunities because he’s earned it,” James said. “When he gets out there he just has to play his game and make plays for not only himself, but make plays for others as well. He has that talent.
“But the kid is 20 years old, he’s going to make mistakes, but we’re okay with that and we’re going to live with that, because what person at 20 doesn’t make mistakes?”
Considering that the only people reading this who can’t name mistakes they made at 20 are either a) not yet 20 or b) lying, James’ point is well taken. In his eyes, though, the important thing is that Horton-Tucker doesn’t make the same ones over and over.
“He wants to learn. He wants to be better than he is today, tomorrow, and that’s a great thing to have,” James said.
The Lakers got a taste of that drive against the Spurs. And if Horton-Tucker keeps on learning at the rate he currently is, it’s a safe bet there will be a lot less DNP-CDs in his future.