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Talen Horton-Tucker is the answer to the Lakers’ questions

The Lakers’ young No. 5 might just give LeBron James a chance to get ring No. 5.

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks

Don’t let his baby face fool you. This kid’s already a killer.

At 6’3, I am taller than most of the other NARPs that I interact with. When I stood next to Horton-Tucker before the Lakers played the Bulls this past Monday, I was surprised to find my eyes tilt upwards to match his own, despite his arms extending far below where mine end. At 6’4 with a 7’1 wingspan, Horton-Tucker shares similar dimensions to a flattened Violet Beauregarde, but with a superior crossover.

Already, in just his first three games this season, THT’s put that big body to use, changing the way the Lakers play basketball. Evidence is quickly mounting that he’s playing at an elite level, much of which he can sustain.

Right now, he’s averaging 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2 assists per game on better than average efficiency. True shooting takes all of a player’s shot attempts, weights them by worth — i.e. one point for a free throw, three for a long-range bomb — and averages them out into a single percentage. True Shooting + (TS+) takes the league average True Shooting and sets that at 100 with players better than average above 100 and players worse than average below 100. So far, THT’s run up a 113 TS+ on a 25.5% usage rate, each of which would be career-highs.

For the average NBA player, volume and efficiency typically work against each other. When a sub-star player’s workload increases, their game gets exposed, and are unable to play as efficiently as before, like both members of the Kniiiiiiiicks’ starting backcourt (especially the French one).

Conversely, someone with exceptionally low usage might have more efficient numbers than a superior player. For example, Mitchell Robinson was able to break Wilt Chamberlain's all-time single-season field goal percentage mark despite being nowhere near as dominant as the Big Dipper. He did it by averaging fewer than six shots per game, almost all of which came from within the restricted area.

So far, THT’s taken on an increased role in carrying the Lakers’ offense while also boosting his offensive efficiency, the kind of dual improvement indicative of a star in the making. He’s taking twice as many shots per game as last season and more than three times as many triples. While his 40% mark from distance and perfection from the line will likely degrade, they’re each plenty high enough to suffer a tad and still be elite.

Of the 50 players with at least 25% usage and 100 minutes of court time this season, THT has the sixth-highest true shooting percentage and the 19th-highest scoring average. Granted, the sample is small, but the only guard with a greater usage rate and scoring efficiency than THT right now is Stephen Curry.

The biggest change in Horton-Tucker’s game that has enabled his quantitative leap is his willingness to take and ability to make threes. It’s something I wrote about as being essential to his development after seeing him either clank, pass up open shots from beyond the arc, or charge fruitlessly into a suspecting defense towards the end of last season. As a non-threat from outside, Talen made life harder for himself and his teammates as defenses sagged off of him and provided cover elsewhere.

Last season, THT made just 28.2% of his two threes per game. Through his three games played this season, THT is making almost three (2.7) of his near seven (6.7) attempts from downtown per game. For a couple of points of comparison amongst elite scoring guards, that’s greater volume and efficiency than both Trae Young and Devin Booker so far this season. And with the floor opened up by Horton-Tucker’s newly elite shot-making, he’s been able to get defenders off-balance, on his hip, and charge into the paint almost at will.

In fact, THT’s improved shooting ability has actually allowed him to drive less often and more effectively. Last season, THT drove to the rim 9.1 times in 20.1 minutes per game, a per/minute rate that would be at around the top 10 in the NBA. However, he only shot a passable 50.4% on field goals coming off of drives, a number still far below the 60% and above posted by the game’s best finishers around the rim like Giannis (63.8%) and LeBron (60.8%).

This year, he’s driving 9.3 times per game over a significantly increased 34.4 minutes per game, but those drives are leading to more shots, and better ones at that. Right now he’s taking almost two more shots per game off of drives (5.7 FGA) than he did last year (3.8 FGA), and making more too (1.9 to 3.3 FGM). Through three games, Talen is making 58.8% of attempts off of drives, exactly the same conversion rate as his much larger, superstar teammate, Anthony Davis.

With defenders forced to respect Talen’s sudden sharpshooting turn, the driving lanes are open for him to get to his patented righty reverse scoop, a shot he nailed repeatedly down the stretch against the Bucks.

In the above clip, Middleton is forced to respect the jumper, necessitating that he go over Dwight Howard’s screen. THT seizes the slight advantage by dropping his shoulder into one of the premier two-way wings in the NBA and driving him through the lane until he has clearance for takeoff, finishing with that ridiculous righty reverse.

Also, THT has developed something of a left hand, attempting lefty layups in each game this year including a make in his most recent appearance. He also fired a lefty skip pass off the dribble without gathering the ball into his right — an advanced pass off of an advanced read, and something my podcast co-host Michael Corvo of Clutch Points noticed him working on before games with Lakers Assistant Phil Handy.

Building upon these small signs of growth could help THT become a true playmaking superstar, given his already elite rim pressuring and finishing skills. Perhaps, this off-hand improvement is the silver-lining from a frustrating month spent watching his team play without him while training with Handy.

So although his own playmaking for others still lags behind his scoring, he has proven capable of making the simple reads right in front of him.

Side Note: Look at Russ’ increasing willingness to screen and cut when partnered with an awesome scorer. He’s already assisted THT directly seven different times. And of those seven, five have come from distance, giving Westbrook’s drive and kick-outs a worthy target. It’s no coincidence Westbrook’s season-high in assists came on a night he dished out four dimes to THT.

While THT’s clearest and most valuable contribution to the Lakers has come on offense, he’s proven to be an impactful player on the other end as well. Among the Lakers’ guards, only Russell Westbrook (24.7%) and THT (16.8%) are rebounding more than 10% of missed field goals while they’re on the court. At eight boards per game, THT’s contributions on the glass may help the Lakers climb their way out of having the 23rd-ranked defensive rebounding team in the NBA (per Cleaning the Glass).

His defense isn’t bad, but considering his physical gifts, there’s certainly some room for improvement. Horton-Tucker is able to deploy his length to disturb opponent passing, ball-handling, and shooting, and has had fewer glaring rotational lapses than he did last season, though there have been a few. Also, he’s long and strong enough to guard bigger wings, but lacks the quickness to stay in front of quicker guards, making him more comfortable guarding down than up. That’s OK for the Lakers, since he should slot in as the 3 in the eventual starting lineup next to Russ, Davis, LeBron, and a guard (my vote would be for Austin Reaves or Wayne Ellington).

When LeBron eventually does return to the court, his insertion into the dead center of everything that the Lakers do may blot out some of THT’s shine, as well as his burn. However, playing beside The Great Provider should only improve Horton-Tucker’s looks, paving a path towards sustained, efficient volume scoring.

And if THT can average 20 points per game on a contender with elite efficiency (after a previous career-high of 9 points per game), there will be a groundswell of support for him to win the Most Improved Player award. But, more importantly, his ascendance would give the Lakers a fourth star to lean on, and added insurance against another injury to one of their Big Three. Not only does THT’s sudden star turn improve the Lakers’ chances of raising banner No. 18, but it also provides them with a foundational piece to contend for titles beyond LeBron’s hypothetical decline and/or departure.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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