Following the Lakers’ season-busting losses to the Pelicans and Nuggets, formally eliminating them from play-in contention, the team decided to sit their ill and injured veteran stars, LeBron James (ankle), Anthony Davis (foot), Russell Westbrook (shoulder), and Carmelo Anthony (non-COVID illness).
The club’s decision to officially wave the white flag finally created the proper set of circumstances to properly develop their newly minted young core, one that grew from Talen Horton-Tucker alone to include undrafted rookie Austin Reaves, as well as waiver wire adds Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel — the latter two of whom could return on cheap team options for next season.
Spared from their opponents’ “best shot,” an explanation the team and its coach often cited after far too many late-game meltdowns, the Lakers were able to hand the ball to Talen Horton-Tucker and let him go to work against three teams without a reason to fight for wins at this point in the season.
Instead of parking himself in the wing or corner and operating as a spot-up shooter or secondary playmaker — as he had for so much of the season playing beside proven offensive entities — Talen became the focal point of the Lakers’ offense, initiating the attack with his downhill pressure and either kicking it out to teammates or finishing off the play himself.
Across their final three games, he racked up a combined 55 points, 12 boards, and 11 assists, and six steals, all on a usage rate of 31.7%. Compared to his season-long mark of 19.2%, and a career average of 20.3%, Talen was finally afforded the space to play to his strengths, and show us all again why he belongs in this league (and not in another one).
Game 80: Lakers @ Warriors
In what eventually amounted to a career night, where he racked up personal records in points, shots, makes, free throws, and free-throw attempts, Talen Horton-Tucker operated as the Lakers’ first option for all but the 11 minutes he sat, keeping pace with the Steph-less Warriors until they pulled away in the game’s final frame. Finishing the contest with a -5 in box plus-minus, Talen buoyed the Lakers’ offense by way of a diverse-ish scoring attack while doing enough defensive disruption to nearly tread water during his minutes against a superior team.
After making his first shot of the game, a mid-range fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arm of the incoming Kevon Looney, he proceeded to deploy a crafty mix of half-spins, in-and-outs, and crossovers in his relentless rack attacks, segmented by occasional pull-ups from both inside and outside the 3-point arc to keep the Warriors’ defense honest.
Among his 28 field goal attempts were at least a handful of legitimately show-stopping finishes, along with a smattering of ill-advised record-scratches that demonstrate the ways in which he is far from a finished product. Talen’s second and third attempts of the game encapsulated this polarizing performance perfectly, proving his penchant for picturesque put-ins before highlighting some of the growing pains inextricable from the experience of a young player testing the limits of what does and doesn’t work in an NBA game.
After drilling his aforementioned middy, Talen blew by an unsuspecting Andrew Wiggins before launching into his patented righty reverse around an in-position Kevon Looney.
Taking off from a jump-stop well outside of the restricted area, Talen displays the unusually delicate touch around the basket necessary to nestle this one in — the very skill that has tantalized Laker fans, and earned him his cult following among them.
Just a minute later, Talen does a really nice job patiently waiting for Jordan Poole’s overplay (an attribute he’s scarcely shown to in the past), then rejects Dwight Howard’s screen before careening into the lane for another tough reverse.
This time, his desire to press onwards towards the basket costs him, as Looney’s size proves too much to bear, forcing Talen into a wild reverse. Instead, Talen should have retreated into the short corner for another mid-range jumper or abruptly risen for a floater — a shot Horton-Tucker notably lacks from his arsenal.
Later, in garbage time, he made the correct read in pulling up in front of the stationary Draymond Green, but lacks the touch to drill the one floater he attempted all night, air-balling it instead.
Perhaps most importantly, Talen’s jumper fell just enough, making 5-12 shots from outside the restricted area, including two of his six attempts from beyond the arc. As a secondary attacker, teams have rarely closed-out hard to contest his outside shot, forcing him to either lean into his 27.4% average from long range on the season, or mash the turbo button into a set defense ready to thwart any easy attempt at the rim. When he has the ball, he’s given the freedom to play through some of these inconsistencies and find a rhythm in his stroke, therefore opening up the pathway to the elite rim pressure he has shown flashes of throughout his career.
In order to make his game more malleable to changes in his offensive role and adjustments from defenses, he will need to solidify his in-between and outside game as counters to defenses that continue to load up the paint against him. While he proved capable of getting to the rim against the Warriors more than enough to offset a relatively mediocre shooting performance, THT’s offensive stability, especially when stationed alongside better players, will ultimately come down to the consistency with which he is able to bang home jumpers.
Of his 15 makes and three assists, these were the plays I felt best showcased the peak of what Talen did with the ball in his hands throughout what was almost inarguably the best game of his young career:
By watching the bulk of his makes in chronological order, it becomes clear how the step-back jumpers open up the slightest windows of space for Talen to dart into and exploit around the rim. And while his final few buckets came during extreme garbage time, they were at the end of an already voluminous and efficient night scoring the basketball
Even so, there were moments where he played like a 21-year-old in over his head, firing up wild shots and passing into clearly covered areas. Still, these are the kinds of growing pains that are to be expected with a player who, on a rebuilding team, might be allowed to figure it out on a night-to-night basis, instead of for just a few games at the beginning and end of his season.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Talen chipped in four steals on a night where he was already tasked with running the offense, a testament to his surprisingly disruptive seven-foot wingspan on his 6’4 frame. Unrelated to his up-and-down offensive efforts, Talen’s proven to be a legitimate steals and blocks threat — in the upper-third of wings in both block and steal rates — on what should have been a highly rated transition offense weighed down by the second-worst transition scorer in the NBA. That length advantage should only play up as Talen is hopefully given greater opportunity to play more backcourt minutes within an (ideally) more well-rounded roster next season.
Game 81: Lakers vs. Thunder
If there was one play that encapsulated THT’s scoring performance the very next night at home, it was this one:
With the Lakers up big against an egregiously tanking Thunder team resting all of its quality players — one that went with a six-man rotation, five of whom played more than 40 minutes — THT went for the finisher in the game’s closing seconds but came up short. Even after crossing up an exhausted and overmatched defender, Horton-Tucker lacked the explosiveness to finish the job, clipping his dunk attempt on the rim and watching it roll out as the clock wound down.
Although he finished with 15 points, the third-most on the Lakers in their final home game of the season, it took him a team-high 16 shots, of which he made just four. Having played almost 40 minutes the previous night in the Bay, Talen performed sans the sustained energy and burst he displayed while carrying the previous night’s unusually heavy load — missing eight of his 10 attempts around the rim.
While the smoked dunk may have been more representative of Talen’s scoring output, the play below was microcosmic of his multi-dimensional impact that night:
By dint of his surprisingly long arms, Talen deflects this pass with his back turned before corralling the ball up-court and winging this unusually angled bounce-pass to a streaking Austin Reaves.
Earlier on in his career, when Talen’s jumper wasn’t falling, he’d struggle to get anything going and his engagement would fade across the board. With the ball in his hands, even though he clearly didn’t have the juice he did the night before, Talen poured in an all-around effort, even without the scoring efficiency of his previous outing, which helped the Lakers blow by the talent equivalent of a G League team.
Game 82: Lakers @ Nuggets
Although we didn’t see much of him in what was ultimately my favorite Laker game from this wretched season, THT’s performance in the ‘21-22 Lakers’ final game was fairly typical of his career to date. In his 13 minutes played before a reaggravation of the Grade 2 left ankle sprain that held him out of five games down the stretch sent him to the bench early, he made three of his four paint attempts, but missed all four of his jumpers.
However, in what is probably his most promising development this season, the best play of his brief run came on the defensive end:
Talen recognizes the proper rotation as the low-man help defender on this dump-in in time to send it back with authority, in sharp contrast with the regularly tardy reads from earlier in the season, and especially last year. While his 10-point game at Denver likely wasn’t the send-off he was hoping for, moments like this show how much more well-rounded his game has become as he’s matured.
The consistency of THT’s jump-shooting is what has — and will continue to be — the most important hurdle holding him back from effectiveness in a variety of roles beside the Lakers’ bigger stars, and ultimately, his own turn at stardom. But his growth as a defender and playmaker proves his game is trending in the right direction. Still, when given the space to go to work, like he had in his first three games without LeBron in the lineup, or his last three without most of the Lakers’ regulars, he showed he can score consistently and semi-efficiently, even without the jumper.
When I asked him about the difference between the stretches bookending his season and the bulk of the campaign, Talen acknowledged his star teammates’ absences and admitted that his on-court context mattered.
“Just having the opportunity to have the ball in my hand and play, almost [you could] say, be at my best...it felt good to actually do that,” Horton-Tucker said.
In these moments, Talen has proven he’s already equipped to lead LeBron-less lineups to greater success than this basketball equivalent of the Hindenburg. In that way, he’s already better at doing what Russell Westbrook was brought to LA to do than Russ proved to be. If the Lakers can expunge that $47 million mistake from their roster this offseason, Talen will finally have room to operate as he’s built to, the way he did in these first and final few games. Ideally, THT could become the Lakers’ lead guard off the bench next season, serving as the engine of the second unit’s offense without giving up quite as much defensively as the prototypical score-first combo guard tends to.
Right now, Talen’s shooting limitations make him the hoops version of an effective relief pitcher, but ill-suited to eat up big innings as a starter. With one awesome pitch, he can catch opponents by surprise, but he doesn’t have enough in his bag to counter once they adjust. If he’s able to water his seedling in-between game, straighten out his stroke from deep, or do a little bit of both, he’s got the high-end rim pressure to blossom the very instant the other pieces click into place.
Contract negotiations aside, if the 21-year-old is able to figure it out by the time he enters his Jordan year, the Lakers’ future will look a whole lot brighter than it does right now.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.