It’s hard to fathom that Talen Horton-Tucker, in his third year in the league and fresh off a summer where he signed a 3-year, $30.7 million deal, has still yet to play a season’s worth of NBA games in his career.
It was a fact the 20-year old pointed out on Wednesday, right after scoring 25 points with 12 rebounds in the Lakers narrow 109-102 loss to the Bucks to kick off their road trip. Horton-Tucker has been active for just three games this season including Wednesday but there has been zero sign of rust as he’s averaging 23.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and shooting a sterling — if unsustainable — 40.0% from 3-point territory.
Horton-Tucker stepped into the starting lineup with LeBron James out to provide the Lakers with size on the perimeter. Now, with James’ return on Friday looking more and more likely, it’s hard to imagine Horton-Tucker taking a step back out.
Head coach Frank Vogel, who has fully earned the reputation as one who will wait until the last minute to reveal his starting lineups on a game-to-game basis, unsurprisingly wouldn’t go as far as to say Horton-Tucker would remain in the lineup, but did say he’s been impressed with his guard.
“Yes, short answer,” Vogel said. “That’s not to say when LeBron comes back or we’re whole, I haven’t made any decisions about what that’s ultimately going to look like. Sometimes, scoring off the bench is what you need. But he’s playing as good as anybody from the standpoint of both sides of the ball; what he’s giving to us on defense and what he’s giving to us on offense. He’s been terrific in his first few games back. He’ll have a big role but he definitely has a made a case.”
It’s not just that Horton-Tucker has provided the team scoring that has made him valuable. It’s that he’s done a bit of everything on the floor. His 3-point shooting has been the most pleasant surprise of his three games so far, but the finishing at the rim, playmaking and defensive impact all have been things he’s gained a reputation for.
“No matter his role, whether he starts or comes off the bench, we need his energy,” Anthony Davis said. “The way he’s been playing, he has to keep that same mindset. He comes in, he’s shooting the ball well, he’s making the right reads, he’s doing great things for us defensively. But, we don’t want that to slow or fade away when we get guys back or his role changes. We got to make sure we stay on him to continue to be locked in but he’s looked great for us. He’s helped us big time at the point guard position, attacking the gaps, getting downhill, finishing, making the reads, kicking out to our shooters. Defensively, poking at the ball.
“He’s been big. He’s been big for us and I think this is only his third game back, so he’s doing all this and still getting in game shape and getting in rhythm. It’s going to be good for us.”
His presence alleviates the playmaking duties on Russell Westbrook and his shooting has allowed the pair to flourish. The 86 minutes he’s played alongside Westbrook so far are the most he’s played with any single teammate and the pair have a net rating of +4.6 on the court together. The trio of Davis, Westbrook and Horton-Tucker has played 63 minutes together and has a net rating of +4.9.
His defensive impact has been just as noteworthy as the Lakers have been 4.3 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor defensively versus off. It’s all small sample size theater through just three games, but Horton-Tucker’s whole career is small sample size with only 74 games played.
But Horton-Tucker is improving with each passing game, and doing so at a drastic rate. It’s hard to believe he’ll continue to knock down 40% of his 3-point attempts and especially if he’s averaging 6.7 attempts per game, but it’s hard to believe a 20-year old is making this level of impact on a title contender.
“I feel like you only get better from experience,” Horton-Tucker said. “I still don’t think I’ve played 82 games in the NBA, period, yet. I feel like I”m just getting better with time. Everything, like my coach says, is starting to slow down more. Making easier reads and things like that. I feel like it’s only a start.”
With James’ return likely on Friday in Boston, the Lakers starting lineup over the last three games of Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Horton-Tucker, Carmelo Anthony and Davis will have to see one player swapped out. Pair Horton-Tucker’s surge with Anthony’s decline — he’s shooting just 4/15 from the 3-point line the last three games — and the case seems to have already been made.
But even if he does come off the bench, he’s going to have a big role with the Lakers, evidenced by the $10 million annually the team agreed to pay him this summer. And everything he’s shown in his first week back indicates it’s going to be a role that only continues to increase.
“He’s just growing in confidence,” Vogel said. “The game slows down for players in their second and third year. Obviously, he’s done a lot early in his career but he really just looks more comfortable right now. Continuing to attack the basket and what we keep an eye on with him is the shot selection on the perimeter — make sure he’s still playing within — and then making great decisions when he gets to the paint. He has a unique ability to finish but when he draws a crowd, the extra pass is something we’re preaching with him.
“But I just love the way he’s playing. He’s playing with great confidence and giving us a huge lift.”
The Lakers don’t have many role players excelling right now. On top of Anthony’s struggles, Kent Bazemore’s production has fallen off a cliff, Austin Reaves is injured and Wayne Ellington has shot 2/13 from the 3-point line the last two games. Horton-Tucker has earned a starting spot for this team moving forward.
And it’s come with less than a season’s worth of games under his belt.