Talen Horton-Tucker started for the Lakers on Sunday, but he doesn’t know if he will moving forward. He played a mostly on-ball role for the team in their 114-106 win over the San Antonio Spurs, but he isn’t sure how much that will continue when LeBron James returns to the lineup. His teammates and coaches were impressed with his defense in his first game back, but Horton-Tucker isn’t sure it was good enough.
Unlike most 20-year-olds, Horton-Tucker is pretty honest and upfront about what he doesn’t know. What he is positive about, however, is that he’s had a taste of winning, and he’d like to do whatever it takes to do more of it.
“Anything I can do to try and win and get another ring is the most important thing for me,” Horton-Tucker said.
On Sunday, in his first regular season game this season following a lengthy recovery from right thumb surgery, that’s exactly what he did. Horton-Tucker scored 17 points on 7-14 shooting in just his sixth career start, and more importantly gave the team’s overhauled, small-ball starting unit another player who could get to the rim and make a play. On the other end, he played so well that Anthony Davis called the return of his fellow Chicagoan “unreal,” even if Horton-Tucker himself felt like he could have been better.
“After tonight I feel like I could have been a little bit better, but I had some good moments and I’m just happy for that. That’s something I have to do this year,” Horton-Tucker said. “I’m trying to lock in to it.”
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel agreed that the Lakers will have to “continue to evaluate” Horton-Tucker’s defense, but praised him for finding a way to make plays and make an impact with his wingspan.
“He’s got good feet, he can really contain the basketball. His length is a factor in deflections and on the boards,” Vogel said. “There are some areas where he still needs to improve, but that’s what this year is going to be about for him.”
The Lakers already rewarded Horton-Tucker for production he has yet provide, re-signing him in restricted free agency to the fourth-richest contract on the team this summer, a three-year, $32 million deal. But the organization was comfortable doing so because they trust that he will continue to make improvements, that he’s not the type to be satisfied with where he is. Horton-Tucker’s soft-spoken demeanor publicly bely a competitor who has improved both his physique and skillset every single offseason, constantly burning to be better.
And now that he’s comfortable financially, he doesn’t have the pressure of having to go out and play like someone trying to get paid. He can just do the things the Lakers paid him for. It’s not hard to imagine that’s partially why Horton-Tucker is just fine whether he continues to start or come off the bench, or whether he’s handling the ball a ton or mostly playing a supplementary role on offense.
“I’m just trying to come out here and be the best that I can. I’m not really focused on [starting]. I’ll just let the coaches and the front office figure out what they want to do as far as that,” Horton-Tucker said. “I’ll just come in and do the same thing that I do every night, and we’ll see from there.”
“I don’t have a problem playing off the ball,” Horton-Tucker continued when asked about LeBron’s seemingly impending return. “I feel like I can help on the ball or off the ball... Being able to do that is going to be key for me.”
In short, he’s willing to be flexible. To do whatever he can to get his second championship, and the first one he’ll be allowed to legally drink during the celebration of (he only turns 21 on Nov. 25). He’s been picking his teammates’ brains during his rehab, mining the minds of the veterans surrounding him for ways to get better. Now he’s back, and he’s ready to show the world what he learned, no matter which ways he’s asked to do so.
“I always tell everybody, just with the group that we have, actually being able to get out there and play with them is a blessing for me,” Horton-Tucker said. “I’m just appreciative of it.”
If Horton-Tucker keeps playing like he did on Sunday, and continues on the career trajectory he’s been on so far, the feeling will be mutual.