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Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker quietly growing into an NBA player in the bubble

Lakers guards Talen Horton-Tucker (5) and Danny Green (14) trap Rockets star James Harden during Game 4 on Sept. 10, 2020.
Lakers guards Talen Horton-Tucker (5) and Danny Green (14) trap Rockets star James Harden during Game 4 on Thursday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Talen Horton-Tucker had never been fishing before arriving in the NBA’s bubble. But within the first couple weeks of the Lakers rookie’s stay in Orlando, Fla., he set out to try with teammates JaVale McGee and Alex Caruso.

During their trip they didn’t have much luck until Horton-Tucker got a bite that stuck.

“It was the only fish we caught the whole day,” Horton-Tucker said in July. “That’s pretty much all they were saying, how I didn’t put in the work but I caught it.”

He smiled as he shared the anecdote, which was all in good fun. It was one example of how the veteran Lakers were getting to know their 19-year-old teammate who spent most of the pre-pandemic season with their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

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Now, in the bubble, Horton-Tucker is practicing with them and living among them. While they might have teased him about not working hard to catch his fish, his work ethic on the basketball court has caught all their attention. In the bubble, Horton-Tucker got his first NBA points. And in the bubble, he also got his first taste of a playoff game.

“I’ve seen such special things from him,” Lakers wing Danny Green said. “I think he’s going to be a great player in this league one of these days, so I’m looking forward to watching him grow. But he came in and gave us great minutes. Those minutes were huge. And I expect he’ll keep that up.”

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

Horton-Tucker played seven minutes in the second quarter of Thursday’s 110-100 win over the Houston Rockets and scored five points with two steals, two rebounds and no turnovers. He had a plus/minus rating of nine.

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It was the second time he’d been thrown into the mix against the Rockets. During the seeding games, Horton-Tucker scored his first NBA points against Houston and found himself guarding James Harden — a task he appreciated getting.

In a normal season that would have ended in June, this is about the time Horton-Tucker would be preparing for his second year in the NBA. He would have spent parts of July and August working on his game, September preparing for training camp and then rejoined his Lakers teammates at the end of the month.

This year the NBA shut down from March to July due to COVID-19. Horton-Tucker took that time to work on changing his body, losing fat and adding muscle, finding gyms in his hometown of Chicago and Los Angeles in which to stay active.

“Just makes a lot of things easier,” said Horton-Tucker, whom the Lakers drafted out of Iowa State in the second round last year. “For somebody that wants to move the way I move at my size, it’s going to be important that I gotta keep [my weight] down.”

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It didn’t go unnoticed. Coach Frank Vogel singled out Horton-Tucker as someone who’d had a good camp when the Lakers gathered for the restart. Horton-Tucker began to make a case for earning rotation minutes, though those are hard to come by with the Lakers.

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Horton-Tucker has enjoyed being the young guy on a veteran-laden team. In addition to the fun they’ve had in their down time, he appreciates hearing from them during practices and when he has a notable moment, whether it’s good or bad.

On Thursday night, as he entered a playoff game for the first time, Horton-Tucker got a pep talk from LeBron James, who told him not to worry about mistakes. He told Horton-Tucker that he and the rest of the teammates would have his back on the court and cover any mistakes he made as he tried to stay loose and play to the best of his ability.

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“What better words can you get from LeBron as a 19-year-old?” Horton-Tucker said. “So I just kind of went in there and did as best as I could to help try and get through it.”

Ganguli reported from Los Angeles.


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