On a team loaded with quality veterans, there’s only one Laker under the age of 25.
In fact, Talen Horton-Tucker just turned 20 in November, and yet, he’s been so effective in limited minutes that head coach Frank Vogel has had to find ways to get him on the floor, at the expense of minutes to trusted vets.
To gain a better understanding of what THT is all about, we Zoomed in when the Lakers were on the road to trace his basketball journey back to his childhood in Chicago, through Simeon Career Academy, one year at Iowa State, a Round 2 selection by the Lakers in the 2019 NBA Draft, the G-League and the Bubble up through today.
Below is a transcription of our conversation:
Mike Trudell: How did you fall in love with hoops?
Talen Horton-Tucker: When I was around 1, my godfather at the time got me a (mini) basketball hoop, and I do remember always having to have the basketball with me. I remember I lost it one time, and that’s one of my first memories of basketball. Every time we went to a store, I just wanted to get another basketball. It was always, ‘I need a basketball!’
MT: What was your first exposure to playing the game? Hoop with your friends? Pickup? Organized games? Camps?
THT: I pretty much played everywhere. Everything you just named, I did. I grew up in an apartment building, and the building we lived in had a basketball hoop outside in the back. I grew up playing there my whole life. I started playing team basketball around age four, and as I got older, it got more competitive as the years went on.
MT: What was the first team you were on?
THT: I played for Villa Park on the North Side of Chicago. We were called the Rockets, in the itty-bitty league.
MT: Right – and were you good right from the jump?
THT: I feel like I always knew how to play basketball. I always noticed I was able to do certain things that some people weren’t able to do, and that always gave me the confidence to be pretty good.
MT: Chicago has such a rich history with hoops, but I’m not sure if I’ve spoken to somebody who was born there after Michael Jordan retired. Of course that must have still been a huge influence on the hoops scene, and I assume everybody had the 23 on?
THT: Yeah, so, growing up in Chicago, Jordan was everything, even with me not being born until after (the championships). You could still see the legacy that he left. My mom was telling me stories about when they won in the 1990’s, everybody went outside for the parades and stuff like that. The tradition is rich, and Chicago is a basketball city.
MT: Was your mom big into hoops? And did you inherit any of the love for the game, or did it come from within?
THT: She loved certain players she was a fan of, but I wouldn’t say she was too into it until I got into it. The love of the game just came from me.
MT: Some people know that your high school, Simeon Career Academy, has a super rich hoops tradition. Derrick Rose was there when you were just a kid before he went to Memphis in 2007 … you’d have been 7. Do you recall the influence he had especially when he came back to Chicago to play for the Bulls?
THT: I was a big D-Rose fan, and growing up, seeing his path and everything he did since he went to the same high school, that was huge. And AD (Anthony Davis) too, being from Chicago, he and D-Rose were the two guys I wanted to see myself get to that type of level. So having AD here now is such a great experience.
MT: When did you get into the AAU circuit, and how many current NBA players did you go against back in the day?
THT: I started playing AAU in like 2nd grade, and I started learning the different sides of Chicago, through basketball: the South Side, the West Side and the North Side, where I was. I remember playing against a few guys that are in the NBA now. It used to be kinda crazy to me to be playing against guys now that I played against in 6th grade. Guys like RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Naz Reid. It’s great actually seeing them on the same floor.
MT: Do you have any memories of specific matchups with any of those guys?
THT: I remember playing against RJ, because we played as seniors in high school too when (Barrett played for Montverde Academy). Being able to compete against each other not too long ago, and now it’s the (Lakers and Knicks) is pretty cool.
MT: Any of your high school teammates still out there playing?
THT: There were like six or seven of us senior year that went Division 1. There was Zach Norvell, a former 2-way player with the Lakers, was my high school teammate. Another guy is Xavier Pinson at University of Missouri. Simeon has that tradition that gets people to the next level.
MT: How did your game grow at Simeon to the point where you started to get some recruiting letters and realized that you had something brewing?
THT: People started noticing me a little more after my freshman year. Just with the years of work I put in, and when my body changed in high school, (my development) was pretty good. I just stayed focused and positive, and it just started happening as far as momentum.
MT: Was there any pressure in going to Simeon after Rose and everybody, or was that something you embraced?
THT: Anything pressure related is something I feel like I need. I want that. I want any pressure that there is, just to be able to say I got through it. Being able to go to Simeon and be like those other guys that made it to the NBA is great.
MT: That brings your playoff debut last year against Houston to mind, when Frank Vogel just threw you in for Game 3 and Game 4, and you didn’t seem to mind the moment at all. You were aggressive from the start, scoring 14 points in 17 minutes, and defending wings like James Harden and Eric Gordon.
THT: Yeah, I feel like that’s how I am. It’s all Chicago. You see it in the guys that are from Chicago. You see it their grit and their toughness. We’re not going to back down. That’s something we carry with us anywhere we go.
MT: I went to Northwestern, on the North Side of Chicago in Evanston, and traveled around the city a lot for different journalism assignments and just to explore, so I got to see how big it is ... how would you describe Chicago?
THT: Yeah, I’m from Uptown, it’s a neighborhood that isn’t far from there on the North Side. A lot of people don’t know that Chicago is really big, and you hear about things that go on in certain sides of town, but it’s pretty much the same city everywhere. Growing up there, you see firsthand what to do and what not to do. You can have friends that go a different route than you go. You see where to go right, and once you have your head on straight; I know it’s tough in Chicago, but you just have to have the right people around you and you can get through it.
MT: LeBron often talks about being the “Kid from Akron,” and how he wasn’t supposed to make it out of there, but basketball was a guiding light. Did you feel that way at all about hoops getting you where you wanted to go?
THT: It’s funny, because like I said, growing up I had a full basketball court basically in by backyard, so just being able to have that stress reliever was big for me. I was always outside playing basketball, no matter what happened that day. I just knew that was what I wanted to do.
MT: How did you decide to go to Iowa State?
THT: I just wanted to go somewhere where I could showcase my abilities, and go in and actually have a chance to win something. We won a Big 12 Championship there, which was a great experience for me to have.
MT: In your one season, you averaged 11.8 points in 27.2 minutes, with 4.9 boards, 2.3 assists and 1.3 steals, and your squad made a run in the Big 12 Tourney as the No. 5 seed, beating Baylor, Kansas State and Kansas to take home the trophy. What was the process from that point for you to decide to declare for the NBA Draft?
THT: After the year, I sat down with my mom and just wanted to know what she was thinking. She told me that it was my decision, and she had the support for me. So when I made the decision to come out, some people said I wasn’t ready, but I just trusted myself and bet on myself. I felt like I got the job done to land with the right team!
MT: I don’t watch much college ball, but I know that the Lakers have had a lot of success in the Draft in the late first round and early to middle second round under (Dir. of Scouting/Asst. GM) Jesse Buss and (VP of Basketball Ops) Rob Pelinka. You also had the foot injury that would keep you out of the Combine and may have impacted the Draft, but clearly the Lakers saw something in you…
THT: It’s just a mindset, especially after getting picked (later). I had the mindset that no matter what pick it was, I’m still going to do what I have to do. I found out I had a stress reaction in my foot after the season, during the combine in Chicago. That was another reason why I dropped in the Draft, probably, but I had to push through it, stay positive during the uncertainty.
MT: The Lakers were of course a loaded, veteran team last year, with a bunch of talented guards ahead of you on the depth chart. But they had the South Bay Lakers there in the same building, where Alex Caruso developed before his role grew. How did the G-League help you during your rookie year?
THT: The G-League was great, just for me to develop down there and get to play minutes against NBA competition. To have that coaching staff down there was really great for me too, telling me things I was going to have to use when I got to the Lakers. I used the whole year as prep, really, to get ready for the NBA.
MT: I mentioned your playoff debut against Houston earlier. Vogel had told us in the media that you had been looking great in practice, and almost forced him to find a way to get you on the court against the Rockets. How did you earn the trust of your coaches and the vets in those practices when you guys returned from the four-month break when the Pandemic started?
THT: Going into practice, I always try to learn. I look at the guys that are in front of me and try to mimic it. I really don’t say too much. I just watch and pay attention, and feel like if I can do that, I’ll be in good shape. In the Bubble, things started to slow down a little bit. I started finding an NBA rhythm. Being able to play against those guys every day was (great).
MT: Of course, you’re learning quite a bit playing with and against an all-time great like LeBron, or one of the NBA’s smartest guards in Rajon Rondo…
THT: I used to watch film with Rondo in the Bubble, after certain games, back at the hotel. Having someone like that around, and also ‘Bron who would always be there to let you know what you’re doing wrong so you can fix it. Having those two guys was already crazy, but then to have other guys on the team just to help you too, was really helpful.
MT: So how do you go from that performance in the playoffs to this training camp, just two months later, including a 33-point preseason game against the Clippers?
THT: I continued doing the same work that I was doing. The quarantine didn’t really stop anything for me, I was still working out on my own; I just wanted to get better at all costs, really. I feel like being in the Bubble was another learning experience for me. I called it Basketball School.
MT: Have you been able to enjoy some of the excitement about your game this season … or, and this seems more likely, do you just keep it moving and stay focused on what you want to accomplish?
THT: Yeah, this is what I want to be great at. So it’s great to hear everybody say good things about you, but I’m just trying to focus on getting better every day. That’s the main focus. I’m only 20 years old. I feel like the sky is the limit, and just learning from these (vets) has been great for my career.
MT: Does it feel like a cheat code sometimes getting to learn directly from LeBron, in his 18th season, still playing at an MVP level, with all that accumulated knowledge?
THT: (laughs) Yeah it’s happened a few times! Just being around ‘Bron and learning how to make certain reads that everybody doesn’t make, I look at it like, ‘Bron isn’t telling any other 20-year-old in the world this right now. So I’m getting something that nobody else is getting. That’s huge. And that goes with AD, KCP, too, and last year with Rondo, learning how he ran a team and especially when he started to shoot the ball a lot more in the playoffs, I was really happy for that.
MT: Stu Lantz talks about on the Spectrum SportsNet broadcasts that you’re at your best when you have the ball in your hands. How have you balanced that with at other teams needing to be off the ball when guys like LeBron have it, and focus on doing the little things and playing defense?
THT: I just want to come in and get better, man. Being around those guys, I gotta do whatever I gotta do to get on the floor. I’m gonna do whatever they ask me. And with me being able to do multiple things on the court, I feel like you can play me anywhere.