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?
There’s no honest way of answering this question directly without addressing the fact that Talen Horton-Tucker effectively had two different seasons depending on which games you choose to parse out. While cherry-picking his best performances might seem silly, the clear disparity between Talen’s role in those two sets of games gives reason to split them up.
In his first and final three games of the season — with LeBron out for the former, and all of the Lakers’ stars in street clothes for the latter — Talen got the opportunity to function as the fulcrum of the Lakers’ offense. Tasked with initiating offense via relentless downhill pressure, Talen thrived, generating quality looks for himself and his teammates at massive volume.
In his first trio of appearances, Talen averaged 23.3 points on ridiculously elite 62.2% true shooting along with 7.3 boards and a pair of assists per game. In his final three, he put up 21.7 points on below average, but forgivable — at least for a 21-year-old — 53.5% true shooting along with four rebounds, 3.7 assists, and a couple of steals per game.
In fact, those numbers look even better when you factor in that he played just 13 minutes in his final game after a reaggravation of a Grade II ankle sprain that held him out of a handful of games only a couple of weeks prior.
However briefly it lasted, Talen’s rhythm was at least as clear to himself as it was to those watching. In his exit interview with the media, I got the chance to ask him how it felt to cook for a few games to open and close out his season.
“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,” he said.
However, those six games made up just a tenth of THT’s entire season, the bulk of which wasn’t nearly as pretty. Next to LeBron, Westbrook, or both for most of his on-court minutes in his middle-54 appearances, Talen was typically asked to serve as a 3-and-D wing, something his spot-up shooting and vertical limitations rendered him comparatively inept at.
In those contests, he averaged just 8.4 points per game, worse than his average last year despite playing in four more minutes per game. And at 48.5% true shooting, Talen was a standard deviation or two worse than Westbrook’s own genuinely abominable 51.2%.
Although it may have been unfair for the Lakers to expect the requisite shooting improvement to enable Talen’s playmaking chops to shine in an off-ball role, he still failed at the only opportunity the team carved out for him. According to basically any impact metric, Talen was a mediocre NBA player (at best) in 2021-22 when evaluating his season holistically.
That doesn’t mean he’s toast. He’s yet to start his fourth NBA season, entering his age-21 campaign, and he’s younger than a number of this past season’s notable rookies (Chris Duarte, Davion Mitchell, Herb Jones). There is time still for Talen to grow into his semi-star potential based on his elite drive-and-kick game, but due to his current contract status, that might end up happening outside of Los Angeles.
What is his contract situation moving forward?
Under contract next season at $10.26 million, Talen will be a Laker in 2022-23 unless he’s traded this offseason. After that, he has a player option for the following year at $11.02 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2024. If Talen blossoms into at least a high-quality role player in either of the next two seasons, he’ll enter free agency with a chance to earn at least as much as his current contract gives him.
If he fails to improve, then paying him more than $30 million over three years is an extreme overpay, especially against the backdrop of having allowed Alex Caruso to walk in free agency for nothing in an unnecessary and self-imposed choice from this front office.
In those ways, his current contract is a lose-lose for the Lakers. If he thrives, they’ll have to pay him or he’ll leave, and if he flounders, they’ll have wasted a bunch of money (and cap space) on a player who doesn’t move the needle.
Should he be back?
As an admittedly, completely biased Talen Stan, 100% yes.
I want few things more in this world than to see our svelte, neè chunky son thrive in the purple and gold. I genuinely believe that he can handle running the second unit's offense if slotted there, and is an underrated help defender when he weaponizes his length to pick pockets and disrupt passing lanes. In his current form, he’s exactly the kind of player where a great team can lean on him when he’s got it going, but shouldn’t need him to carry them every night in order to win.
That being said, much of what he does best — his on-ball self-starting — overlaps with both Malik Monk (whose own Lakers future remains uncertain) and Kendrick Nunn’s skillsets, leaving a gaping hole at the wing that remains unaddressed heading into the offseason.
If the team packages him with Nunn (who said he plans on picking up his player option) in exchange for a proven contributor at the wing, I will be disappointed, yet understanding, and continue to cheer him on when he’s with his next team, whether it’s as a member of the Pacers, Raptors, Rockets... or Shanghai Sharks.
If he does return, it had better be in an on-ball capacity, or else we’ll likely be having a similar conversation next offseason.
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.