When the Lakers made Talen Horton-Tucker the fourth-highest paid player on the team, they likely hoped he’d soon blossom into the fourth most valuable player on their roster. While that clearly hasn’t happened — he’s averaging just a half-point more than last season on almost six more minutes of run per contest — it probably wasn’t rational to assume that it would.
Just 21 years old as of Nov. 25, Talen’s still younger than a handful of this season’s rookies (Davion Mitchell, James Bouknight, Corey Kispert, Trey Murphy III, Chris Duarte, Quentin Grimes, Herb Jones, etc.), and has played in just 111 games across parts of his first three NBA seasons. Prospects often don’t pop until their fourth season or later, especially those who are as young and unpolished as Talen was when he was drafted (i.e. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Ingram, and Pascal Siakam).
More importantly, in terms of explaining why Talen’s struggled this season, is how he’s been drawn into a role misaligned with his greatest basketball strengths. Not only has he often played in lineups with marginal spacing, he’s frequently asked to be the spacer, something the career 27.8% 3-point shooter is ill-equipped to do at this point in his career.
Without a true small forward on the roster, Talen started his season debut at the 3 (after missing the team’s first 13 in recovery from surgery on the UCL in his right thumb) beside Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Avery Bradley, and Carmelo Anthony. And despite playing beside two non-shooters in Russ and AD, THT thrived as a secondary shot creator and the leader of the second unit, averaging 23.3 points per game on 49% from the field and 40% on threes through his first three games played.
As soon as LeBron returned from his ab injury, however, Talen’s production fell off a cliff, standing around watching Russ and the King go to work. The hot start from long range was bound to regress, but it was his re-casting as a 3+D stopper that prevented him from getting anything going. Given his inconsistent usage, and specifically his declining shot attempts, it made sense to see him lose his rhythm from beyond the arc.
Of course, Talen shouldn’t be prioritized over LeBron in any offensive hierarchy, especially as long as his jump shot remains this balky, and LeBron continues to win rounds in his bout against Time. But while I am still a true believer in Talen’s talent, it isn’t limitlessly malleable, like, say, LeBron’s is. He is an outstandingly talented driver and a decent defender, but a poor 3-point shooter, especially from above the break (24.2% per The Basketball Index), which has been the locus of the majority of his attempts (2.3 per game from above the break vs. 0.7 from the corners).
“Talen’s touches and opportunities have been inconsistent. That’s not to say that he’s been inconsistent — there have been some nights where the ball finds him a lot more than others,” Vogel said.
Vogel then went on to address THT’s main skillset as “someone you can put the ball in his hands for long stretches or with certain units and he can really deliver for you,” before explaining why we’ve seen so little of it from him in recent games, “With this team, he’s off the ball and in a secondary scoring role probably too much...to get the most out of him. But that’s just the nature of how our team is built, so we just want him to be aggressive in those opportunities.”
As Talen’s production waned, so too did his trade value. The guy who was once the Lakers’ sticking point in a deal for Kyle Lowry had become someone seen as dead weight by opposing front offices.
However, his failure in that new role doesn’t mean he can no longer succeed in the old one. Just look at how he cracks open Portland’s defense from the Lakers’ most recent game (one which also came without Russell Westbrook in the lineup, bumping Talen back in to the secondary playmaking role):
Talen beats Dennis Smith Jr. off the dribble after rejecting the high screen from AD, then rips a one-handed laser into the left corner, sending the collapsed Portland defense into a scramble. Instead of becoming a spectator to the remainder of the play — like a certain other Lakers point guard — THT immediately relocates to the right corner, where he ends up finishing off the play he started by banging home the triple.
This kind of off-the-dribble juice is rare to find in the NBA, and will only be amplified when he’s able to knock down threes with more consistency, giving cause for his defender to always play him as high and tight as DSJ does here (and not just after he’s already made a couple bombs).
As long as he’s stuck behind Russell Westbrook and LeBron James in the playmaking pecking order though, it will be hard for THT to prove he belongs on an NBA court. By holding off on trading him for mere scraps on Thursday, the Lakers have given him another chance to recoup some of the value he hypothetically had before the Lakers extended him this past offseason.
However, it’s hard to see how that happens right now, especially with the team’s construction setting him up for failure in the 3-and-D role he’s not built to thrive in. Hopefully, by refraining from moving him or their 2021 first round pick now, the Lakers have positioned themselves to move Westbrook in the offseason for some added depth — the very thing they traded away to get him — opening the door for Talen to step into a bigger role, and one that he’s actually more capable of thriving in
If the Lakers can carve out a chunky role for their formerly chunky prospect, they’ll be putting him in a position to either perform for them in a Lakers uniform, or command a sizable return in a trade. However, his unusually early-career extension of three years, $30 million (with a player option on the third year) means that anybody willing to trade for him this offseason might only have him for one year if he outperforms his deal, or else have to be willing to pay him major money to stay that summer. Therefore, the superior asset play for the Lakers, a behavior recent history sometimes makes it feel like they are organizationally averse to, would be to keep THT for the remainder of his contract, and if he explodes into a veritable third option, pay the man, or else sign him on the cheap after the conclusion of just his age-22 season in the hopes that he still eventually might.
While Talen’s third season has certainly been disappointing on the whole, much like it has for the rest of the organization, it hasn’t been without its high-points, lending some credence to the notion that the Lakers were right to not give up on their most promising young player just yet. By repositioning his role on the same squad, THT could yet shine in the purple in gold, making not trading him this deadline look like one of the organization’s rare, prudent moves this decade.