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Coby Karl says it was clear Talen Horton-Tucker was special from his first G League practice

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Talen Horton-Tucker has proven to be a draft steal for the Lakers, and he’s been showing his potential for the entire time he’s been with the team.

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Grand Rapids Drive v South Bay Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

The story of Talen Horton-Tucker was originally told in whispers, through rumors and second-hand accounts that sounded more like an urban legend. They came out in bits and pieces as he impressed, mostly behind the scenes, or in glorified scrimmages. Frank Vogel saying in the bubble that he would be a starter by this season, or LeBron James telling his agent to sign Horton-Tucker when he was still a high schooler, and even Tony Allen remembering Horton-Tucker screaming the same thing with both his game and his words during a G League game: “I don’t belong down here.”

Now, the word is out. The fact that Talen Horton-Tucker is special isn’t a secret anymore. From Masai Ujiri of the Toronto Raptors making him a make-or-break part of a Kyle Lowry trade, to the Lakers refusing to include him, that the league has recognized Horton-Tucker is one of the more promising prospects in the NBA is undebatable.

The latest display of Talen’s talent came against the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, when Horton-Tucker became the first NBA player to record at least 19 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three steals off the bench since Dwyane Wade did so on March 26, 2019. He has been one of several Lakers to step up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis sidelined.

But maybe we should have seen this coming. Because before this stretch, before the flashy preseason stats, and even before his impressive playoff debut, Horton-Tucker was making believers out those that saw him in the G League at his very first practice. It’s hard to remember given the hype now, but back in the fall of 2019, Horton-Tucker was just a teenaged second-round pick, the youngest player on an NBA contract, and one who had missed an entire summer league and most of training camp with the Lakers due to a stress reaction in his right foot.

Despite all that, though, South Bay Lakers head coach Coby Karl said on our latest podcast that it was immediately obvious that Horton-Tucker was ready for all of this.

“I could sense right away that he wasn’t scared of the moment,” Karl told Silver Screen and Roll. “He was basically having his first full practice with us after a long time off, and he played really well. I remember all of us being like ‘well, it looks like we don’t need to worry too much.’”

Karl admitted that prior to that first practice, South Bay wasn’t completely sure what to expect from the 18-year-old. They knew he had talent, that much was clear from watching his tape. But how it would translate was unknowable until they saw him play.

“You just never know with a young kid like that, and Talen, he was taking some pretty audacious shots in college, so you just don’t know until you see it,” Karl said. “He wasn’t scared of the moment, and he has the skills, obviously you can see that now, it’s pretty simple.”

But soon it wasn’t just Horton-Tucker’s talent that stood out to Karl. It was his mindset. Lakers fans have gotten to see his sponge-like desire to soak up knowledge from his veteran teammates at every opportunity this year, from the way he looks for tips from James and Davis during games to the way he took advantage of opportunities to watch film with James and former teammate Rajon Rondo.

It’s something Karl noticed right from the start of the rookie season Horton-Tucker spent mostly playing in the G League.

“With Talen, I think a really cool thing about him is he’s very humble, and he’s very authentic in his own unique, quiet way, he’s curious to get better in a lot of different ways,” Karl said. “He comes from Chicago, obviously he comes from a great line of basketball traditions with Simeon, but you just never know.

“I think he has a unique appreciation, I think his mother probably has something to do with that, and I know his uncle lives with him, so he has a great support system of family to remind him of how grateful he is,” Karl continued. “He has a unique ability to realize that none of this is given, and it can change really quickly, and I think he saw that being with us all season. We had a really tough season with injuries and he had to play a bunch of different roles for us, from being fifth guy on the floor at times to being our No. 1 guy who we relied on.”

Maybe those real-time lessons are part of how Horton-Tucker has been able to contribute to the Lakers in a variety of ways this season, from being a short-burst role player to taking on the previously improbable and unforeseeable role as an offensive fulcrum for a contender fighting for playoff seeding with James and Davis out. But Karl doesn’t think they’re the only factor in his rapid and impressive development from curiosity to legit NBA player.

“Those experiences I think have helped him, but there is no doubt that his skills and who he is is more valuable,” Karl said.

Who Horton-Tucker is will in large part help determine his NBA future. It’s clear he has NBA-level skills, but showing he can make counter-adjustments as teams continue to modify their scouting reports on him will be key in how far his tantalizing talents can take him. For now though, it’s clear his teammates are enjoying the process of watching him figure it all out:

And if the Lakers get their wish, he’ll continue to develop in Los Angeles well beyond this season. The secret may be out on Horton-Tucker, but it doesn’t mean the Lakers are going to let him get away. They’ve seen up-close-and-personal how good he’s been from the beginning, and it’s more and more clear by the day that they should want to see how this tale ends, too.

To listen to our entire conversation with Coby about the South Bay Lakers, coaching and more, check it out here. And to make sure you don’t miss any future episodes, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.