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Lakers Season in Review: Talen Horton-Tucker

The continuing development of Talen Horton-Tucker could be the key to maximizing the Lakers’ potential.

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NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to our annual Lakers season in review series, where we’ll be taking a look back at every player on the team’s roster this season, evaluating their play, and deciding if they should be a part of the organization’s future. Today, we take a closer look at Talen Horton-Tucker.

How did he play?

After appearing in just eight games for the 2019-20 championship Lakers as a teenager (including the final four meaningless games of the regular season and two more in the playoffs), Talen Horton-Tucker entered the 2020-21 campaign at the bottom rung of the Lakers’ guard rotation.

However, after a handful of head-turning performances in the preseason, the THT Hype Train reached a critical mass of passengers, becoming Unstoppable in what felt like a matter of minutes. In those electric preseason contests, Horton-Tucker averaged more points per game (20.5) than all but eight other players, a group including six All-Stars, Christian Wood, and bizarrely, Cedi Osman.

Horton-Tucker made excellent use of his sneaky size — he possesses a 7’1” wingspan despite standing just 6’4” — to evade bigs around the rim. He picked careless ballhandlers’ pockets, averaging 2.2 steals per game, the 10th best mark in the preseason. Perhaps most impressively, he did it all with the efficiency of a polished star, shooting 54.7% from the field and 53.4% from beyond the arc. THT flashed the potential to grow into a veritable star, becoming the kind of foundational piece Laker fans had clamored for since sending away their first, second, and third-born children to the New Orleans Rumpelstiltskins for Anthony Davis (and effectively, an NBA title).

Horton-Tucker was able to carry some of his preseason heat into the regular season, earning a smattering of minutes in most of the Lakers’ initial set of games. Through his first 10 appearances of the 2020-21 campaign, THT averaged 8.1 points in 16.9 minutes per game while still shooting reasonably well against the rigor of regular-season NBA defenses. He made 48.4% of his shots overall, including 36.4% of those from 3-point range.

Though watching the (barely) 20-year-old stuff stat sheets in marginal minutes carried its own distinct pleasure, catching the vapors of what he might grow into delivered a high that could otherwise only be matched by whatever Alex Caruso’s got in his herb grinder. Throughout the season’s first half, THT got to the rim with the ease and craft of a seasoned veteran; herking and jerking into his patented backhanded layup:

How often do you see a player, let alone one who can’t legally drink yet, come into the league with his own signature move?

With Harden-esque start-and-stop capabilities, THT punished defenders for trying to hang with him, consistently creating opportunities for himself on the left side of the cylinder with his right hand. According to Basketball-Index, THT ranked in the NBA’s 98th percentile at getting to the rim, and the 96th percentile in terms of his overall finishing talent, the best and second-best on the Lakers, respectively (trailing only LeBron James in the latter category).

However, as Horton-Tucker’s reliance upon this singular mode of production grew, defenses adapted to counter it, and his confidence in the rest of his game waned. Instead of guarding THT out on the perimeter, opponents consistently went way under screens and dared him to shoot. Like trying to start a fire without a spark, Horton-Tucker’s drives became relatively futile as he’d drive into traffic without room to get off his own shot, or the spacing necessary to hit open shooters.

Despite his passable stroke at the start of the campaign, THT finished the season shooting 28.2% from distance on exactly two attempts per game, not nearly enough in quality or quantity to make defenses pay for sagging off of him. In the Lakers’ Game 2 win over the Suns, LeBron James pulled Talen Horton-Tucker aside, apparently imploring THT to shoot his open 3s for the sake of the team’s entire offensive flow.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns
LeBron knew Horton-Tucker needed to shoot willingly to open up space for himself and others.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Notably receptive to LeBron’s criticisms, Horton-Tucker shot, though he did not often make, going 0-2 over the rest of that game and then 1-3 in games five and six after back-to-back DNP-CDs.

This offseason, Horton-Tucker will need to improve his jump shot to the point where it is a fully integrated part of his game if he is to begin approaching his offensive potential. Even if he never joins the handful of guards comfortable rising and drilling from 30-plus-feet, he needs to have a viable counter for defenses going under screens in order to make the most of his driving superpower.

Fortunately for the Lakers, he’s aware of the issue. As recently as his exit interview in June, THT said, “Offensively, I want to get my shot to the point where it’s almost automatic.” He went on to acknowledge the aforementioned change in how opposing defenses guarded him that cramped his style, saying, “You start realizing how guys are playing you a certain way, like in my case, they were playing me this year to go to the basket a lot more. I started to see that early on.”

Crucially, THT has knocked the most important part of his improvement out of the park — acknowledging his greatest weakness. He’s already made good on his promise to work on his shooting, too, tapping NBA shooting coach Chris “Lethal Shooter” Matthews to help him with his jump shot.

If Horton-Tucker can begin to shoot as consistently as he hopes to, he has the raw talent to blossom into one of the premier guards in the Western Conference. To that point, despite possessing a seventh percentile 3-point shot-making grade, THT owned a 79th percentile 3-point shot creation grade (per Basketball-Index). Essentially, he was good at getting open looks for himself when he was willing to take them, even though he couldn’t often convert on them when he did. The ability to create and make 3-pointers combined with his human bowling ball rack attacks would be enough to make him a constant scoring threat and a perfect second-unit engine to ween the Lakers off of some of their reliance on 36-year-old LeBron James’ Greatest-Of-All-Time playmaking.

In that same exit interview, Horton-Tucker also stressed the need to continue his work on the defensive end. The raw tools are there — in just his first true season of NBA basketball, THT posted a block rate in the 83rd percentile and a steal rate in the 78th percentile among other combo guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. While his length and quickness make him a particularly switchable perimeter defender (89th percentile defensive position versatility, per Basketball-Index), he was prone to occasionally glaring rotational lapses — a big no-no on a Frank Vogel team — which ate into his playing time.

Still, months away from his age-21 season, THT has traveled light-years from a 46th overall pick to becoming a central part of the discussion around the Lakers’ future. And if you don’t believe in the glowing assessment of a blog boy, take it from the franchise’s present:

What is his contract situation moving forward?

After exposing his star potential to front offices around the league, Horton-Tucker would be ill-served by signing the minimum qualifying offer the Lakers will send his way for just under $2 million, which if declined will see him enter restricted free agency on August 2. There, he will have the chance to garner an offer sheet from any other team looking to poach his talents. If he were to sign another team’s sheet, he’d have to do so before October 1, unless the offering team extends their offer up to March 1 at the very latest.

Other teams can only offer THT around $9.5 million in each of the first two years of his new contract by using their non-taxpayer mid-level exception, whereas the so-called “Arenas Rule” would allow the Lakers to pay him as much as approximately $10.25 million over at least two years via his Early Bird Rights. Basically, it’s very unlikely that THT signs elsewhere simply due to the fact that the Lakers can — and almost certainly will — pay him more than any other team is allowed to (at least in those first two seasons).

The one scary implication of an opposing team’s offer sheet is their potential to give THT as much as $31 million in the third and fourth years of his deal. If he were to sign that so-called “poison-pill” offer sheet, the Lakers would be forced with the difficult decision of either matching the contract to retain him or letting him walk.

However, Horton-Tucker could also simply refuse to sign that type of deal to the Lakers’ benefit and work out a separate contract of comparable pay with the Lakers. Considering the fact that THT was one of six Klutch Klients on the 2020-21 Lakers, it seems likely that borderline de facto GM Rich Paul finds a way to make both sides happy with Horton-Tucker in Hollywood.

Should he be back?

As a capped-out team with Luol Deng’s $5 million salary still spilling into the Luxury Tax, the Lakers have no means of acquiring another star except by retaining and developing their own sparse draft picks, or trading them for equivalent salary. By letting Horton-Tucker walk, they’d be losing an asset for nothing in return. Instead, they can pay him a salary beneath his free-market value for the next two seasons and retain him, hoping that he can grow into his full potential, or eventually include him in a swap for a third star.

I’d be lying if I told you how great Talen Horton-Tucker will become with any degree of certainty, but he’s already very good, and appears on track to get better. With the opportunity to retain such a young, promising player, the Lakers would be foolish not to make sure he remains central to the organization’s team-building gameplan this summer.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Podcasts. You can follow Cooper on Twitter at @CooperHalpern.

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