It's not about how you start but how you finish — that's the best way to describe Talen Horton-Tucker's season.
After firmly entrenching himself as a part of Will Hardy's rotation in the early parts of the season, his playing time had deteriorated as the calendar flipped from December to January — including straight DNPs as the trade deadline approached in early February. Guards Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Malik Beasley were getting the majority of the minutes heading into the trade deadline, and both eventually got traded.
For most 22-year-olds in the league, those struggles would have easily derailed a once-promising year. But Horton-Tucker isn't most 22-year-olds.
"He understands what is real and what is not," Hardy said. "He wants to play more, he wants to be in the rotation, he wants to be a key player. At that age, to have that level of maturity to understand that you might not always get what you want, and that you have to keep working. … That's a credit to Talen."
That understanding and maturity culminated in one of the best stretches of Horton-Tucker's four-year career. When the team was riddled with injuries, he took over the starting point guard role and ran with it.
He scored double figures in 18 of his final 24 games, averaging 17.9 points and 5.0 rebounds from February through April. Overall, he posted career-highs in points (10.1), assists (3.8), and rebounds (3.2) for the season.
One of the best games of his season came on Mar. 11 when the Jazz were visiting Charlotte. With Utah already down its top two scoring guards and All-Star Lauri Markkanen having his worst shooting performance of the season, Horton-Tucker took it upon himself to lead the Jazz to victory.
He nearly broke Utah's triple-double curse when he finished with 37 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds.
"Very clearly, the story of the game is Talen Horton-Tucker. … All the hard work showed tonight," Hardy said postgame. "The way that he's gone about this season, from a work standpoint, from a patient standpoint, competing and controlling what you can control every day, like that's what we want to be about. … He embodies that."
Two weeks later, Horton-Tucker set a new career-high when he scored 41 points in Utah's victory over San Antonio.
In his lone season with the Jazz, Hardy made it known that Horton-Tucker was a point guard, and they trained him as such.
That belief paid dividends, not just for the Jazz but for Horton-Tucker's psyche.
More than the scoring and the shooting numbers, the most impressive part of his growth was how he turned a perceived weakness into a strength. The point guard, who once struggled to play under control and at a proper pace, averaged 6.5 assists per game over the final months of the year.
"I'm not trying to be, like, cocky, I just feel like I can do it more," Horton-Tucker said. "It's not the only time I've been able to do that. The reps that I've been getting here, I hadn't got those in my career yet. … So, being able to get them here, I've got to take advantage of it and try to turn it into something."
Horton-Tucker's perseverance showed through after what can be deemed a season of growth with highs and lows. He stuck with it and rewarded Hardy's faith in him with a career year — and now comes a crucial offseason.
"I am incredibly hard on Talen, I have been all season. … That is because I believe in him," Hardy said. "He has not always gotten what he wanted, he's had moments where he was out of the rotation during this season, and he's never complained, he's worked really, really hard every day. … And he's taken hard coaching from me. I'm just really happy to see him have some success."