The Emergence of THT

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

On a championship NBA team that features a talented group of veterans, it may have been the (just turned) 20-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker that shined the brightest in the preseason.

In L.A.’s four games, THT averaged 20.5 points on 54.7 percent shooting, including 53.8 percent from three, plus 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.2 steals and 4.2 free throws made (89.5 percent).

He was second on the squad in minutes (31.6) as Frank Vogel took a look at his contributions in various roles, both on and off the ball.

The first two games were against the Clippers, and as LeBron James, Anthony Davis and other vets clapped from the bench, THT ran the offense and competed on defense, ultimately totaling 52 points, 19 rebounds, eight assists and seven steals against LAC’s first and second units.

Indeed, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both spent possessions defending THT, and after a tough shooting night on Friday night (6 for 17), he found his range on Sunday, hitting 10 of 15 shots, including 4 of 5 3’s towards a 33-point night.

In fact, Leonard was so impressed with THT during the first matchup that he approached new Lakers Wesley Matthews and said, ‘Hey Wesley … Talen’s 19?’

“Huh? 19?,” Matthews responded, so surprised that he had to ask THT how old he was after the game. Upon learning that he’d just turned 20, Matthews “Was like, ‘Wow!’,” before offering more after Saturday’s practice.

“Special is definitely the word to describe his game,” said the 12-year vet. “He’s young, but he’s got all the tools. He’s a dog, he’s tough on offense and defense. He’s crafty, he’s got some stuff to him, and he’s only going to get better … he’s learning from one of the best to ever touch a basketball (LeBron), and he’s just going to continue to grind and continue to work. I’m excited to hopefully be a part of his growth process.”

The praise continued after his next game.

“He just showed more of what we’ve seen from him since we’ve been watching him in the G-League for a season and in the Bubble,” said Frank Vogel following a 131-106 win. “His ability to attack offensively in a variety of different ways, attacking the basket with great finishing ability, making good decisions with his paint to great*, shooting the three ball well, and he had a strong defensive night as well. I knew he was going to play big minutes, and am not really surprised at the numbers he put up.”
*‘Paint to great’ is Vogel’s expression for a drive into the paint that draws in the defense before a kick out for an open shot.

With LeBron and AD back in the starting lineup against Phoenix in the third exhibition game, Horton-Tucker came off the bench, but still managed 18 points in 24 minutes, on an efficient 7 for 11 FG’s, plus five boards, two assists, a block and a steal. Playing a complementary role in certain lineups, Vogel still found space for him to be a screen/role operator, as the Suns – like the Clippers – struggled to keep him out of the paint. THT used his long stride, long reach (7’1’’) and big hands to secure the ball in the paint, including on a highlight finish through seven footer DeAndre Ayton.

The Chicago native played off the ball even more in the fourth game, as the starters played more minutes. He still produced 12 points in his 22 minutes, making both of his 3-point attempts, on 5 of 8 FG’s overall.

It’s harder to dismiss THT’s terrific play from four relatively meaningless preseason games since he also played quite well when called upon in Round 2 of the playoffs against Houston.

With the Lakers holding a 2-1 lead on the Rockets, Vogel unexpectedly called THT’s number in Game 4, citing how well the rookie had been playing in practices. The Iowa State one-and-done played just seven minutes in that game, and 10 in Game 5 before Vogel stuck to his typical vet-laden guard/wing rotation of LeBron (on offense), KCP, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo. But he certainly made the most of his time.

Showing no lack of confidence or hesitation, THT hit six of 12 shots, including 2 of 5 3’s, and grabbed five boards plus a pair of steals with his 7’1’’ wingspan, doing his part to help the Lakers win both games. He brought the same attitude into the limited training camp, which Vogel brought up unprompted after the second practice.

“He continues to impress,” he said of the No. 46 pick in 2019. “The young man has a great attitude, a great spirit, comes to work every day with humility, and just goes out there and kicks people’s butts. He’s a heck of a talent, and he’s had a great two days here.”

One reason for THT optimism is L.A.’s track record in finding talented players at the end of the first and into the second round of the Draft. Lakers assistant GM/Director of Scouting Jesse Buss has overseen the selection of several impact players, such as Kyle Kuzma (No. 27), Larry Nance, Jr. (27), Josh Hart (30), Ivica Zubac (32), Isaac Bonga (39), Thomas Bryant (42), Jordan Clarkson (No. 46) and Svi Mykhailiuk (47). It’s quite rare that players taken at those later spots in particular would still be NBA rotation players, but clearly, Buss, Rob Pelinka and their staff are getting the job done.

Talen Horton-Tucker

With playing time hard to come by on the senior squad last season, the Lakers encouraged Horton-Tucker’s development with the South Bay Lakers, letting him operate in several different roles. This season, Vogel has already acknowledged that THT is presenting a good problem.

“We have a very deep team,” he shared. “No minutes are guaranteed. If he keeps playing at a high level, that should push everyone else to stay playing at a high level. It does give us that luxury of having him carry the load some for some of the guys that played deep into the championship run last year, had a short offseason, and he should be able to carry some of that load.”

Marc Gasol may be new to the Lakers, but he’s among the smartest basketball players in the world, and he was impressed with his young teammate.

"I like how decisive he is,” said the Spaniard. “He has a variety of ways of finishing around the rim ... He's very open to listening and he's a great kid. I didn’t know much about him, but I’m very positively surprised after a week with him now. What I like is defensively he’s a hard guy to attack … he knows how to use his big body, he likes to compete on the defensive end.”

There’s so much of THT’s story yet to tell … but he’s certainly off to a good start.

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