LAS VEGAS — In typical Las Vegas Summer League fashion, the biggest game played on Friday night didn’t take place on the Thomas and Mack Center hardwood, but adjacent to it.
After a long day spent between the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ air-conditioned basketball oasis and the 110-degree desert heat, the approximately half-full crowd in the 18,000-seat arena began to grow weary. With seven games played between the facility’s two courts and just one to go, it felt like the evening’s intrigue had all but expired.
But as the clock ticked towards 7 p.m., a palpable vibe shift occurred; a wave of purple and gold began to wash out the broadly unaffiliated masses, inching attendance towards capacity and reinforcing a well-known NBA truism: Laker fans travel. Especially to Las Vegas.
And then, LeBron James walked in.
Careening through a corridor stocked with Lakers elite, LeBron donned a toothy grin as he blessed those among his basketball apostles — Kurt Rambis, Dave McMenamin, Phil Handy, and Talen Horton-Tucker among others — with cordial greetings, varying in levels of familiarity.
LeBron’s presence functionally defibrillated a crowd looking for a reason to care about a mostly meaningless basketball gam. His surprise cameo spawned a surprised gasp and then an elated roar from the crowd of mostly Laker fans, followed by a night of direct provocations from fans wanting trades, photographs, or mere ocular acknowledgment.
The sideshow held by the game’s biggest star eclipsed the nominal main event’s shine.
For the rest of the evening, a steady stream of The King’s acolytes came to offer tribute, with one notable exception — Russell Westbrook. And while the biggest story of the night may have been who LeBron didn’t sit with, a close second should be that of who he did for almost the entire second half.
Detaching himself from his partner for most of the evening, Lakers assistant Phil Handy, Talen Horton-Tucker plopped down on LeBron’s right, joining fellow supreme Klutch Klientele and Kaptain Klutch himself in Rich Paul.
Attention paid to the Lakers’ team-building this summer has been primarily focused on the potential retention or expulsion of Russell Westbrook, while Horton-Tucker’s name has been regularly thrown around as an afterthought in transactions built around the bigger name in the Lakers’ backcourt. Through the first season of a $30 million, three-year deal with a player option in its final one, largely considered to be an unnecessary overpay, Talen Horton-Tucker mostly looked miscast as a 3-and-D, two-way spacer and ill-equipped to play alongside ball-dominant stars.
At times, however, especially when given the opportunity to run the show, Horton-Tucker thrived, driving efficient offense for himself and his teammates while wreaking havoc on the other end by way of his unusually long wingspan.
Despite once looking like the crown jewel of the Lakers’ remaining youth movement, given his underperformance — albeit in an uncomfortably fitting role — Horton-Tucker now finds himself on the outside of the Lakers’ presumed inner circle, awaiting potential news of an involuntary relocation to Brooklyn, Toronto, or perhaps San Antonio.
But last night, maybe for the last time, he held down prime real estate in the King’s court. The rest of the offseason will likely determine whether he remains a favored prince or merely a marginal jester.
Meanwhile, at the half, Darvin Ham addressed reporters in front of a makeshift press room in the tunnel beneath the stands. When asked by Clutch Points’ Michael Corvo about Horton-Tucker — who Ham had yet to mention a single time during his series of adulating soliloquies directed at the Lakers’ various role players — Ham took the opportunity to backfill praise he’d yet to pile on Talen:
“Multifaceted player, man, just a guy that can dribble, pass, and shoot,” Ham said. “I feel thrilled to be able to coach him because he’s a guy you can move around to different places, if you wanna play big you can use him. He can initiate your offense. If you wanna play small, he can play the 4. He’s strong enough, he’s long enough to be able to get hits and get rebounds and get stops on the defensive end.”
Although Horton-Tucker’s recent track record shooting the ball from deep suggests that he might struggle again without a clearly delineated on-ball role, Ham seems keen to deploy the 21-year-old all over the floor in a variety of ways.
He did, however, hint at Horton-Tucker’s unfortunate tendency to fall behind the speed of the NBA game and look overwhelmed, stating, “He is a guy that just has to keep things simple. Play simple, defend simple, and consistent.”
However, he closed by apologizing for his lack of public attention devoted to Horton-Tucker, and demonstrated his “ability to connect with anyone,” as phrased by the Lakers’ Summer League head coach Jordan Ott in the postgame, lightly ribbing Corvo with a smile, accusing him of asking the question in exchange for a bribe from Talen himself, inciting a chorus of laughter from the beat corps.
For the rest of the game, Horton-Tucker remained at LeBron’s side until they all left for their extracurricular activities in Sin City.
With his future on the Lakers still in question — in opposition to Ham’s protestations of the contrary — Horton-Tucker’s public evening with the GOAT could be read in retrospect as a bittersweet goodbye. Or maybe, if THT makes good on his semi-star potential this season, it could just as easily have been an affirmation of his presence in LeBron, Klutch, and the Lakers’ inner circle.
All the more likely though, it was simply two colleagues — one of whom happens to be professionally invested in the other’s ascendance — enjoying a sporting event together seated out on the wings, but with the spotlight shining directly on them.
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.