Talen Horton-Tucker may have taken the NBA by storm in December as a preseason sensation, but it would take a little longer for him to find his way into the actual rotation for the Lakers. The 20-year-old was a DNP-CD in four of the team’s first 18 games, and it was clear that this coaching staff was going to make him earn everything he got.
Along the way, though, Horton-Tucker started to show signs that he was learning, but it didn’t translate to an immediate increase in opportunity. In the next two games after the first 18, Horton-Tucker played just over 21 minutes total, making six of his nine shots and finishing as a +4 in a one-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers and just a -1 in a 15-point loss to the Detroit Pistons.
Frank Vogel had seen enough. When he went to tighten up his rotation against the Boston Celtics coming off of that two-game losing streak, it was Horton-Tucker who made the cut over veterans Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris. He’s shown no signs of wanting to let go of his spot, and Vogel is giving no indication he’s going to give it away. After averaging 15.3 minutes per game over the Lakers’ first 20, Horton-Tucker has played in all three games since, averaging 21.4 minutes per appearance.
Following his latest demonstration of everything he’s learned while scoring a season-high 17 points and out-dueling fellow young guard Michael Porter Jr. against the Denver Nuggets, Vogel made it clear that he’s thrilled with how quickly Horton-Tucker is coming along:
Frank Vogel on THT, who was terrific tonight:— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) February 5, 2021
"Every test that we’ve given him, he’s passed. He continues to play well, and has earned a bigger role."
A little over 21 minutes per game may not seem like a lot, but a six-minute increase in playing time on a team with only six guys playing more than 20 minutes per game this season is nothing to sneeze at. And he’s earned the opportunity, as it’s not just his frequent lineup partner Montrezl Harrell that he’s made better. Good things are happening overall when he’s on the floor to utilize his length and athleticism on both ends.
The lineups and minutes that have featured THT this year have been extremely stout on defense in particular. In 530 possessions, the Lakers are a +10 with the 20-year-old on the floor, and have a defRTG of 100.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) February 5, 2021
Opponents also have an eFG% of just 48.4% against those groups.
There are 24 Lakers duos to play more than 200 minutes together this season. The one with the best defensive rating? THT and Trezz. Lineups featuring those two have strangled opponents to 95.9 points per 100 possessions, just one part of their symbiosis: https://t.co/YvI82jrSX5— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) February 5, 2021
And while Horton-Tucker still makes his share of young player mistakes, he makes up for them my making plays very few other players could make:
Another good example of where THT's length can functionally make up ground or close the gap of an initial advantage created.— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) February 5, 2021
A really nice behind the back dribble move by Murray to split the defense but THT is able to poke the ball away from behind & create a transition chance. pic.twitter.com/lkS2L7oE8Q
So yeah, Horton-Tucker is not a perfect player yet by any means, but he’s earned the respect of his coaching staff and — arguably more important for a young player in a veteran locker room — his teammates, something Anthony Davis outlined to reporters after the Nuggets game (via Spectrum SportsNet, emphasis mine):
“A lot of credit goes to him. He came in doing good things defensively, scoring the basketball on the offensive end, making the right plays. And we trust him. I know he’s young, but he wants to be in the game when it’s crunch time. We can throw him in a game at any point and he’s going to make plays for us. He’s a young player who wants to learn, who wants to get better, and I think the only way you can do that is with experience, and he goes in and he’s not afraid of anyone. Heart of a lion.
“He was on a championship team last year, so he knows what it takes. I think it was good for him just to be around, even though he didn’t get that much playing time last year, but just being around it and knowing, being around all the veterans and all the guys, he knows what we expect from him, and he comes and brings it every single night.”
It’s why he’s earned praise from Vogel and Davis, and led Jared Dudley to say he’ll be shocked if Horton-Tucker isn’t starting next year. While that second part remains to be seen, what isn’t in doubt is that this appears to be real. Horton-Tucker seems to have genuinely earned a spot in the rotation that the Lakers are going with. For a sophomore that was only born three years before LeBron James entered the league on a team competing for a title, that’s a solid next step in his development.