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A Tale of Two Talens

After a thrilling, albeit delayed, start to his age-21 campaign, Talen Horton-Tucker came crashing down to earth, and has since struggled to get back off the ground.

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Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — In accordance with LeBron’s preseason edict, most players devote their practice time to perfecting shots that they take in games. By that same token, if you see a player take a shot in a game, he’s almost certainly taken that shot thousands of times before on an empty court, and probably dozens of times that same day in warmups, even if they tend to religiously conclude their pregame warmups with an unrealistic heave (i.e. Curry’s tunnel shot, or this next-level masterpiece).

Accordingly, when Talen Horton-Tucker took a score of threes across his first three games this season after recovering from thumb surgery on his dominant (right) hand, my presumption was that not only had THT taken a trillion triples this offseason, he’d made most of them, encouraging the organization to green-light him as a consistent 3-point shooter, even if his 40% clip was probably unsustainable. His jump in volume from two threes per game last season to 6.7 attempts across his first three games took him from being the 11th-least frequent 3-point shooter among guards playing at least 20 minutes per game last season, to the 34th-most frequent one.

In addition to taking and making 3-pointers at an unprecedented clip, it wasn’t like these were your garden-variety, wide-open catch-and-shoot looks. No, THT was fulfilling the organization’s dreams of him becoming a 3-and-D wing and more by consistently punishing defenders for going under on-ball screens and sagging off of him to help contain his teammates’ drives; stepping back to his left and right and drilling self-created open looks from mid and long range.

Just as the prophecy foretold, with defenders forced to respect the three-ball and go over screens, Talen was able to get the rack and score in traffic by way of his seven-foot wingspan, often with his patented righty reverse and high-arcing flip shots.

He followed up a 19-point debut with at 28-point night against his hometown Chicago Bulls, and poured in 25 more against the Milwaukee Bucks. Not only was his scoring a boon to a Laker team reeling from the absence of LeBron James, but his output put him in elite company amongst the best young players in the game.

LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards, Franz Wagner, and Cade Cunningham are still the only 20-year-olds to score more points over a three-game span than THT this season. While THT has since turned 21, the stat is nevertheless made more impressive by the reality that he’s never been given the consistently heavy usage on a night-to-night basis of the other four; centerpieces of franchises at various stages of a rebuild.

To that point, LeBron’s return subsumed some of Talen’s usage, which seemed to put a crimp in his glow-up, as he immediately regressed towards his sophomore season’s mode of operating. Or maybe it was just the adrenaline of a return to action in front of fans wearing off, and fresh legs becoming tired ones. But whatever the reasons, over the next 10 contests, Talen took and made threes at a much lower rate than he had over his first three games (2-24).

Then, starting with the Lakers’ third matchup with the Thunder, Talen found his stroke, going 2-3 from beyond the arc, and drilling 3-6 two days later back at home against the Magic.

When I asked him about the difference between his hot and cold streaks after that game against the Magic, Talen said it was as simple as making sure he was “staying aggressive” in his catch-and-shoot opportunities.

“At first I was kind of being a little hesitant not knowing what was gonna happen after that,” Horton-Tucker said. “Just being aggressive and staying with my shot, trusting my work is something I’ve kinda been trying to focus in on with these last few games.”

But instead of getting an opportunity to build on his confidence afterwards, he was almost immediately forced into the COVID protocols, seemingly halting any momentum he’d been able to resurrect.

More than a week later, he returned to action with only a pregame shootaround under his belt between clearing protocols and tipoff, and had what was probably the worst game of his young career, shooting 1-13 overall, including 0-8 on threes. Despite “trusting [the] work” he’d put in with the coaching staff and “staying aggressive in the catch-and-shoot” on his way to eight 3-point attempts, he simply couldn’t catch a groove. As the game wore on, Talen’s body language made it clear he’d lost all confidence in his shot, but, to his credit, he continued to hoist away as long as he was open, at least for that night.

Four more games later, and he’s yet to make a 3-pointer since clearing the health and safety protocols, on a total of 14 attempts. He’s shooting less and making none, so teams have resumed packing the paint in the halfcourt with him on the floor, once again daring him to shoot. However, he hasn’t taken more than two in a game since his 0-8 debacle, evidence of his waning confidence in his shot. The packed paint has again closed off Talen’s viable driving lanes, forcing him to either pass up open looks he’s uncomfortable taking, or driving straight into traffic in attempts to force something up. Without room to work, Talen’s fallen totally out of rhythm, looking like a shell of the best version of himself.

For five games, three to start the season, and then the two prior to his COVID absences, Talen’s displayed the willingness and confidence as a shooter that has allowed him to realize his full potential — 20.4 points per game while shooting 44.8% on 5.8 threes per game. Across his other 15 appearances — the middle 10 and his most recent five — he’s averaging just 7 points per game while making two of his 39 threes (5.1%) on 2.6 attempts per game.

All players go through hot and cold streaks, but Talen’s are so extreme that they make him either an All-Star-caliber scorer, or completely unplayable. Given the fact that Bad Talen’s shown up three times as often as Good Talen, his overall season stats are underwhelming (10.3 points per game while shooting 22.1% on 3.4 threes per game), and his on/off numbers are downright damning.

The Lakers have been exactly three points per 100 possessions better with THT off the floor than they are when he’s on. His floor-shrinking effect becomes even more clear when isolating his impact with and without one of the Lakers’ two playmaking superstars. When LeBron plays without Talen, the Lakers beat opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions, but lose by 1.6 points when they share the floor. Russell Westbrook’s marks with and without Talen are even worse: -7.2 with him, and -0.9 without him.

Remember, Horton-Tucker only just turned 21 this month, but the Lakers can’t afford to just play him through this slump for much longer if they hope to contend for a title, or even avoid the play-in. Unfortunately, this team’s brutal start has eroded any breathing room to experiment they had in each of the last two seasons. The Lakers simply can’t afford to lose LeBron’s minutes, or fail to tread water in Westbrook’s.

While the Lakers will likely hope to encourage Good Talen’s consistent reemergence before the end of the season, Bad Talen just can’t be a part of their rotation if they expect to win a playoff series. He’s a good rebounder, an improving and disruptive defender, and a sharp passer, but none of that matters if he detonates the Lakers’ chances at reasonably effective halfcourt offense by failing to garner at least a modicum of respect from behind the arc.

Still, all signs point towards the organization’s internal evaluation of THT as a potential star, so I wouldn’t expect the Lakers to settle for anything less than a massive upgrade at a position of need to pry the 21-year-old from their hands, even if he can’t get his jumper to fall consistently before Feb. 10 (this year’s trade deadline).

He’s the fourth-highest paid Laker for a reason, and under contract for at least another year, with a player-option for the following season. With LeBron playing as well as he is, and AD under contract through at least the 2023-24 season (and a player option for ‘24-25), the Lakers may have at least another bite at the apple even if they can’t get over the hump this season. If Talen’s arrival as a consistent contributor (i.e. Good Talen) comes at any time within the next 26 months, the Lakers will be glad to have retained an optimally fitting slashing wing who adds a scoring punch and moderate defensive impact, in addition to a final pathway to a contending core beyond LeBron’s years as one of the best players in the NBA.

If he doesn’t show more than he has so far over the next two seasons, however, he’ll almost certainly opt into the final year of his contract, and the Lakers will still have a young, trade-able, 23-year-old asset to flip for something at the 2024 trade deadline. With perceptions of Talen’s talent at a league-wide nadir, I would be willing to bet that two years of skill development at least buoys his market value beyond pure salary ballast.

Pundits who have slapped together deals involving THT haven’t pictured especially awesome packages in return. John Hollinger pitched a Lakers trade of THT, Kendrick Nunn, and a first round pick for Bogdan Bogdanovic in his recent column for The Athletic. I can’t imagine the Lakers shipping out THT along with the player they used their mid-level exception on for a marginal upgrade who’s admittedly “struggling,” especially in addition to their only tradeable first round pick, which won’t arrive until 2027 or 2028.

It’s theoretically possible Jerami Grant’s versatility on the wing is the Lakers’ missing piece, but it’s hard to see why the Pistons would move their one win-now asset to sell for the aforementioned package given their already overloaded and young backcourt of Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, and Frank Jackson (unless they already want to cut bait with Hayes). Grant’s also taken a step back from his play last year, and is out indefinitely after receiving surgery on his right thumb. Again, it’s hard for me to envision the Lakers moving Nunn before having seen him play for another injured player, let alone in a package including THT and potentially a first.

Ben Simmons is likely the one player, and premier Klutch Klient, who moves the needle enough for the Lakers to put all their chips on the table, but there really isn’t a way to make a financially functional deal without involving Westbrook, unless the Lakers send out Nunn, THT and EIGHT other Lakers making the veteran’s minimum. The former seems unlikely for basketball reasons from Philly’s perspective, while the latter would decimate an already shallow Laker roster in the middle of a season. There is a reason teams almost never make gigantic trades like that mid-year.

The point is, the Lakers don’t need to rush into a win-now deal to move Talen for anything less than a huge in-season upgrade while his trade value is as low as it might ever be, because if he continues to play like this, all they need to do to improve down the stretch is to sit him and get healthy. Getting Good Talen more consistently would be great for their championship aspirations, but Bad Talen is not an intractable problem, or one worth addressing now if it comes with the price-tag of the Lakers’ last remaining morsel of potential and flexibility.

All quotes obtained firsthand. 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.