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Is Talen Horton-Tucker As “Flat-Out Special” As LeBron Thinks He Is?

As if things weren’t good enough in Lakerland, the champs may have found a young player who can help them both now and in the future

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Preseason basketball results can often inspire silly overreactions, but there’s undeniable value in watching a team tweak its system or a player improve their skills. This preseason, the performance of Lakers second-year wing Talen Horton-Tucker is particularly noteworthy. He was drafted 46th in 2019, but he’s showcasing two-way talent that would make him a lottery pick in any redraft. Horton-Tucker’s development could add even more depth to the best and deepest team in the NBA right now and provide a core piece for the future.

“Telling you right now! This kid is flat out SPECIAL! Mark my words,” LeBron James tweeted after Horton-Tucker logged 19 points and nine rebounds in his first preseason game against the Clippers, who played their starters for portions of his on-court stints. LeBron’s praise for THT amplified the excitement of Lakers fans. In his encore, Horton-Tucker produced a banger. On Sunday, he played 41 minutes and dropped 33 points to go along with 10 rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Exhibition or not, Horton-Tucker made it obvious that he has a deep bag of tricks that can make him a tough cover against anyone.

Horton-Tucker just turned 20 years old—much to Kawhi Leonard’s surprise—which makes him younger than 41 players drafted in 2020. And he’s flashed more scoring upside than many of them. He’s a true hooper with a tricky style like Jamal Crawford, but he’s packaged in a body like P.J. Tucker. He’s the league’s heaviest (234 pounds) and longest (7-foot-1 wingspan) player for his height (6-foot-4). As an Iowa State freshman, he used his body to overpower defenders but his handle was loose, which resulted in sloppy turnovers. Horton-Tucker has since tightened his handle, which gives him a strong and slippery style.

Horton-Tucker won’t need to shoot as often as he has in the preseason once LeBron James and Anthony Davis return. He’s a savvy off-ball player who can spot up, cut, and slash, as well as attack lesser defenders off the dribble. Though he’s not a pass-first guard, he’s capable of creating open looks and delivering the ball to teammates.

Every scout and executive knew Horton-Tucker had skills when he entered the draft. It’s just that his flaws were severe. He jacked up unwarranted jumpers, didn’t shoot well, and was an erratic decision-maker who didn’t make up for it on defense. To make matters worse, he had a stress reaction in his foot that derailed his predraft workouts and caused him to fall out of shape. Horton-Tucker was a theoretical two-way presence in a draft littered with safer bets, but the Lakers were willing to take the risk in the middle of the second round and he’s already changed the habits that scared off other teams.

Horton-Tucker has smoother jump shot mechanics than he did before, but there are still questions about his consistency in that arena; he made exactly 30.9 percent of his 3s as both a rookie in the G League and a college freshman at Iowa State. And even though he’s a herky-jerky ball handler, he still needs to improve at finishing inside. But he’s already made progress in those areas with skill development and by simply improving his shot selection. Perhaps even more impressive is the leap he’s taken defensively.

With a rare combination of brute strength and long arms, he’s best suited to defend larger wings and forwards instead of smaller, quicker guards. With large hands, he’s a menace in the passing lanes and can rip the ball away from opponents like he did against Leonard in the clip above. THT has shown that he’s a dramatically different defensive player than the one who played without effort or focus in college. Defense was an issue for the whole team, frankly. But that shows the importance of culture; with the Lakers, Horton-Tucker is spending time with champions and learning how to win.

“To be around professionals every day and see how they work, I feel like it prepared me to be in the position I am right now,” Horton-Tucker recently said. “I just learned how to be a professional at an early age. I feel like most guys don’t get that. Just being around the guys that we have this year, and the guys that we had last year was key for me to becoming who I am now.”

Horton-Tucker was projected as the 11th man for the Lakers, and likely the odd man out of the rotation heading into the season. No surprise there considering he played only 98 minutes in the regular season and the playoffs for the Lakers, though he did also impress with his chances in the second round against the Rockets. But Lakers head coach Frank Vogel may have no choice but to give minutes to this season. “It’s going to make my job difficult, for sure,” Vogel told reporters when asked about finding minutes for Horton-Tucker. “But it does give us that luxury of having him carry the load for some of our guys that played deep into the championship run.”

Vogel’s latter point is particularly important. Following the shortest offseason in NBA history, the Lakers have already discussed plans to manage playing time and find rest days for James and Davis. With the pandemic still raging and the NBA no longer playing in a bubble, the risk of players testing positive for COVID-19 and missing games also heightens the importance of depth. Having a player who can generate baskets off the dribble and play hard on defense like Horton-Tucker will help alleviate what’s lost when either of the Lakers stars or anyone else isn’t active.

Even if the Lakers remain healthy all season, finding playing time for Horton-Tucker should be a priority; it’s not only an investment in his individual progress, but the future of the entire organization. Consider that he’ll turn 24 years old during the 2024-25 season, the last season Davis is under contract. The Lakers are Finals favorites this season, but in order to remain contenders deep into the decade, they must develop young talent.

Horton-Tucker is an X factor in Los Angeles, both in terms of the skills he could bring on the court and in the value he provides from a business standpoint. The Lakers have some big decisions coming up. Five of their rotation players can become unrestricted free agents in 2021, and both Horton-Tucker and Kyle Kuzma will be restricted free agents. It’d be tremendously pricey to keep everyone. Though Kuzma offers value to the Lakers with his size and scoring ability, he’s five years older than Horton-Tucker and has inferior shot-creation instincts. THT’s emergence as a potential spark-plug scorer off the bench could make Kuzma expendable in trades to add another win-now piece or future draft picks.

LeBron’s teams aren’t usually in this position. Outside of Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers and Heat didn’t have any young players with Horton-Tucker’s potential. Instead, LeBron shared the floor in the Finals with the likes of Mario Chalmers and Boobie Gibson. Horton-Tucker can be far better than them all. He still might be raw. He still might be unproven. And yes, it’s only preseason. But Horton-Tucker has flashed enough skills to start the conversation that he could be the league’s next major second-round steal. If he is, the Lakers will only have stronger odds of competing for championships for many years to come.