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Can Talen Horton-Tucker raise his game amidst high expectations?

Although he’s still only 20-years-old, Talen Horton-Tucker will be measured this upcoming season not as a blooming prospect — but as a key player on a championship contender.

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Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Talen Horton-Tucker.

There are moments during a game where Talen Horton-Tucker can morph in front of your eyes. With an inside-out-dribble that’s expertly chased by a flummoxing spin-move and capped off with an improbable finish at the cup, Horton-Tucker could easily pass for a player that is a decade his senior. A seasoned veteran masquerading as a 20-year-old.

In other instances, reality sets in. Like the patchy buds of facial hair that have begun to sprout on his baby face, or some of his more ill-advised hiccups on the floor, there are enough slight reminders to acknowledge he’s still very much a work in progress.

It is this constant pull and sway of navigating adolescence to adulthood, prospect to reliable role player, and pleasant surprise to having firm expectations, that presents the opposing forces he must constantly calibrate for and excel within.

Although this upcoming season will only be Horton-Tucker’s third professional campaign, it will be the first where the training wheels will be undoubtedly swapped out, in which the very empty parking lot he practiced in transforms into the Grand Prix.

Despite only being a few months older than the likes of recent lottery picks Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Jalen Suggs, and Franz Wagner, Horton-Tucker is now in possession of a non-rookie contract, and with a three-year, $32 million contract in hand, he will be the fourth highest paid player on a team chock full of future hall-of-famers. And because of this, he will be expected to play up to these very standards in what will be another championship-or-bust season for the Lakers.

Horton-Tucker may not ultimately be the singular player who will dictate whether or not the team accomplishes their goal, but how well he plays within this newly defined role could be what puts them over the top.

In terms of what the team will need from the Iowa State product this year, it will likely be a combination of things he already does well, in addition to some improvement in key areas.

Los Angeles Lakers v Washington Wizards Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Last season, Horton-Tucker’s ability to create his own and teammates’ offense proved to be a valuable skill on a club that lacked consistent scoring punch. One of the most prominent ways he went about doing this was by getting to the rim. A lot.

According to Cleaning the Glass, 53% of Horton-Tucker’s shots in his sophomore season came within four feet of the basket. That staggering shot frequency ranked in the 99th percentile among all combo guards, and was readily evident with just a casual watch of his film.

The means in which Horton-Tucker gets to the rim with such ease are essentially as much of a contradiction as he is. Wisely, he often leverages his unique physical makeup to his advantage, using his extraordinarily long arms to routinely puzzle defenders.

And through his impressive ball-handling, he is able to dart by and pepper in buckets with a feathery touch. Like a pterodactyl swooping in and out of tree cover before pouncing on its prey with wings long enough to outstretch over any obstacle in it’s path.

There is an unmistakable grace to how Horton-Tucker sets up his defenders, making them lean in one direction only to abort last second, leaving behind only a shadow. And when he eventually gets to his destination, he finishes with an array of go-to moves that include a pet backhanded floater that nimbly nestles over the rim momentarily before finally dropping.

But with beauty also comes brutality, and Horton-Tucker shown himself more than capable of the latter route as well. With a hulking upper body, the guard is able to bulldoze through defenders with a shoulder strong enough to routinely send 200-pound-plus humans flying toward the front row.

This type of bully ball and sheer physicality is another example of a rare skillset he possesses that is largely absent amongst young players when they initially enter the league. It’s almost like his body and frame are that of someone else, someone older and more wizened. Horton-Tucker simply the host occupying it, and pushing it to it’s limits.

It is though this combination of finesse and fury Horton-Tucker ranked in the 98th percentile of the entire league when it came to BBall-Index’s “getting to the rim rating,” which measures a player’s ability to create shots at the rim.

The 20-year-old also made the most of his chances once there, finishing in the 96th percentile when it came to “overall finishing talent” (a metric that analyzes a player’s ability to get to and finish at the rim) as well. Elite marks for any player, not to mention a 20-year-old second-round pick.

While the interior element of his game is already ahead of schedule, the perimeter is still an area where he needs a crash course. Although his ability to get to rim will still be valuable, it may be less so on a team that will deploy a slew of creators on the roster next season.

For Horton-Tucker, this may mean his outside shot will need to take a substantial step forward to get steady playing time. And when canvasing his 3-point numbers all the way back to his G-league stint, and including both his regular season and playoff totals, the numbers up until now have not been pretty.

Horton-Tucker has attempted a combined 387 shots from behind the arc since being drafted, but has only made 116 (29%) during that span. For additional context, Horton-Tucker struggled canning his long ball even last season, despite having a shot quality that ranked in the 70th percentile of the league, according to BBall-Index.

Perhaps even more discouraging was not the fact that he missed his chances, but that he simply did not pursue them much, as only 25% of his shot profile consisted of attempts from deep (9th percentile among combo guards).

The Lakers ultimately do not need Horton-Tucker to suddenly turn into Ray Allen overnight, but if he can become a consistent catch-and-shoot threat to pair with his ability to create separation, this will open up his own driving game, as well as the team’s as a whole.

But beyond expanding his offensive game, Horton-Tucker’s defense rounding into form could actually prove to be the most pivotal area of improvement next season.

Defense has historically been the side of the floor that has ailed young players, and often is also the element of the game that takes the longest to master. Fortunately, Horton-Tucker has also shown flashes of potential here. Enough positive signs to even earn trust within the team as well.

“I think Talen has got to establish himself as a dominant defensive player,” Rob Pelinka recently told the media during a press conference. “We all know about his publicized incredible wingspan, broad shoulders, quickness, athleticism. If he makes a choice to dominate you on the defensive end with his body and his length and his athleticism that could be a nightmare for opponents.”

In large part to the length, frame and massive hands Pelinka referred to, Horton-Tucker has shown a knack for gobbling up steals and deflections when the opposition attempts to drive to the paint with impressive reflexes. The rest of his off-ball game however, still needs some fine-tuning.

Aspects like fighting over and not dying on screens — as well as locking and trailing his man — are techniques that will need to be drilled down in practice and with more reps. As exemplified earlier last season, the opposition will not be so generous with the growing pains of a young player, as Horton-Tucker was often targeted in off-screen actions/cuts in particular, which he would routinely find himself getting lost on.

Through the course of the year, Horton-Tucker did mature in this regard, but if the team is counting on him to play important minutes come playoff time, his defense will have to be a strength, not a weakness. That level of trust from his teammates and coaching staff will have to be earned, and they think he can do it.

“He has the ability,” Frank Vogel told Spectrum SportsNet when discussing Horton-Tucker’s defense. “The last few years as a young player he’s gotten a little bit better as we’ve gone, but he’s one of those guys, that looking at KCP and Alex not being here, can you step up and fill into that role of guarding some of the other best players.”

There are ultimately plenty of reasons for both external and internal fans of Horton-Tucker to be excited about his basketball future, given what he has shown in his brief time in the league. The physical tools and flashes on the court are simply that intoxicating.

With that said, it is important to remember context, like that he’s so young he’s still not allowed to legally drink. Horton-Tucker also probably doesn’t know what a beeper is, has likely never blown into a video game cartridge, or stepped foot on the shag carpet of a Blockbuster. Not to mention he's barely played more than 70 professional games so far.

For as seasoned and mature as he may play and present himself, youth is impossible to ignore — or expedite. However, in a sense, the Lakers signed Horton-Tucker to grow up both literally and metaphorically this upcoming year.

He may still be a prospect, but will likely no longer be treated as one. The veterans will push him, as will the fans hungry for another championship. That’s the thing with success, especially of the early variety: It eventually is no longer a surprise, but something that is expected.

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

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