The Los Angeles Lakers showed how much they believed in Talen Horton-Tucker this offseason when they gave him a contract for three years and $30,780,000. This made the then 20-year-old the fourth highest-paid player on the team behind the big three of LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Anthony Davis.
In his first few games back from injury, that decision looked like a smart one, he averaged 23.3 points in those first three games and scored his career-high 28 points against his hometown team the Chicago Bulls. On the other hand, in his next four games, he averaged 4.5 points per game and struggled to find his rhythm when the ball was not in his hands.
Luckily for Talen Horton-Tucker, his game is expected to also improve on the defensive side of the ball this season as well and he might be more valuable to the Lakers on that end of the floor. Before the season head coach Frank Vogel said they had “challenged” him to step up on defense and fill the roles of the departed Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pop. After the Lakers loss to the Celtics this season he mentioned,
"“We’re grooming Talen to guard the other team’s best player. Sometimes that’s going to look really good and sometimes you’re going to struggle,” Vogel said. “Tatum had a heck of a night, got (Horton-Tucker) in foul trouble. There’s going to be some growing pains there.”"
When he has defended the other team’s best player this season he has struggled like against Tatum or when he has been asked to guard bigger players like reigning finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. THT might be too short to defend players like those two, but his willingness to defend players that are some of the best in the NBA speaks to his defensive mentality and should jumpstart his improvement on that end.
That determination to guard the best player mixed with his wingspan and athleticism should be enough for him to develop into an above-average defender. Yet it remains to be seen if that potential will come fruition this season and he can actually have success defending all-star level scorers.
One excuse for Horton-Tucker’s slip in play since his first few games back from injury could be that he reaggravated his surgically repaired thumb late in the game against the Milwaukee Bucks and has not been the same since. After that tweak to his thumb that is when his scoring and shooting averages really took a dramatic drop off.
Lakers fans know how much a hand injury can effect a player’s season and jump shot, it was 21 years ago that their young star Kobe Bryant also had a hand injury that caused him to miss 15 games of the 1999-2000 season. It took Bryant until midseason that year to be fully healed from his broken hand injury and he even said he had to make 100,000 jump shots in the next offseason “to correct the flaw in his technique” due to the injury.
This is definitely not a direct comparison of THT to Kobe, but it is a good example of how a hand injury can negatively affect a player’s performance in the season, especially a younger player not used to coming back from this type of injury.
Another obvious reason for his dip in scoring was that his role changed dramatically once LeBron returned to the lineup coming back from an injury of his own.
Excuses aside, Talen Horton-Tucker is valuable to this franchise because he is a 21-year-old with the potential to be a primary outside scorer and distributor on offense while having the attitude and the growing ability to defend the other team’s best player. Not many players in the league his age possess those qualities and the Lakers lack any sort of young talent beyond him after trading away their young core the past few seasons.
To maximize his ability on offense this season he will need the ball in his hands and with Westbrook and James having the same issue he is best suited to run the Lakers’ second unit.
He had a chance to do some of that in the win Sunday against the Detroit Pistons, and despite getting into foul trouble, he had perhaps his best game with the Lakers big three on the floor.
Coming off the bench he had 12 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and a block in just under 27 minutes of work. It was an efficient 4 for 10 performance from him and showed how many areas of the stat sheet he can fill up as the Lakers’ sixth man.
One of the only other things that can hold Talen Horton-Tucker back from having his best season for the Lakers could be a midseason trade that is centered around him because he is the Lakers’ only asset that could get a return to improve the roster. There have already been suggestions in a recent article from Bleacher Report involving him being moved for the guy who went off for 32 points against the Lakers Sunday, Jerami Grant.
Grant has been a teammate with Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony with the Thunder and if the Lakers could make a move to get him for THT they might pull the trigger considering how disappointing their season has been thus far.
The question affecting that decision, is which THT shows up on a nightly basis? The one that can help defend the best player on the other team and also drop over 25 points? Or will they get the guy that can disappear for an entire game and score zero points in 28 minutes, as he did against the Knicks?
These next few months up until the trade deadline will be a test to see if he can not only take his game to the level but if he can also find a way to do that alongside a big three that includes two other ball-dominant players.
If Talen Horton-Tucker can’t then perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers should move on.
However, the best-case scenario for both Talen Horton-Tucker and the Lakers is that they figure out how to make it work with their youngest player who could help carry this team into the future. His ability to score on offense in multiple ways and defend multiple positions on defense provides too much potential to trade away in a short-sighted move midseason.
If he can develop into the leader of the Lakers’ second unit as the main scorer and distributor he should easily put up the best numbers of his young career. He already showed the ability to lead the team in scoring and with shooters like Carmelo and Malik Monk in the second unit he has plenty of opportunities to develop his playmaking ability as well.
The Lakers have not had a sixth man of the year winner since Lamar Odom won it back in 2011, and if THT can grow into a similar role as a playmaker off the bench he could give them their best chance to win the award since then.
His most noticeable areas of improvement this season have been his ball-handling and 3-point shooting that could help his aggressive style of play on offense to give him more room to get to the basket. The improved jump shot will also allow him to be more effective off-ball if he does share the court with James or Westbrook.
He has also shown a better ability to play one-on-one defense compared to last season when he was often exposed when put into isolation. This was on display when he locked up Jrue Holiday for a jump ball on a crucial possession at the end of the game against Milwaukee, and it is why the Lakers have been more comfortable matching him up with the better guards in the league.
It is clear that he put in a ton of work in the offseason to improve, and if he stays on the roster he will be heavily leaned on to help right the ship and get this season back on track.
His struggles should just be blamed on the lack of continuity this team has, and his injury that caused him to undergo intensive rehab and has affected his play since he has returned to the floor.
Once Talen Horton-Tucker is fully healed from the lingering effects of the hand surgery and the Lakers can better define everyone’s role on the team, then he will definitely have more success and be on the path towards his breakout season.