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Why LeBron James, Frank Vogel and other Lakers are raving about Talen Horton-Tucker

Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker is greeted with a high-five by LeBron James on way to the bench.
Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, right, is greeted by LeBron James on the sideline during the second half of the Lakers’ preseason win over the Clippers at Staples Center on Friday.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

LeBron James didn’t play in the Lakers’ preseason opener Friday night, but he did tweet an early review from the film session.

“Telling you right now! This kid is flat out SPECIAL!” James tweeted. “Mark my words.”

He’d just gotten done watching his 20-year-old teammate Talen Horton-Tucker put the kind of all-around touches on the game that have had Lakers insiders raving for the last four months. The passing, the shot-making, the slashing — it was all on display in the Lakers’ 87-81 win over the Clippers in their first game in Staples Center since March 10.

“That boy @Thortontucker is goin to be special,” Lakers veteran Jared Dudley tweeted after the win.

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The Lakers and Clippers opened the NBA preseason to a fan-free atmosphere at Staples Center that illuminated stark contrasts cast by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Horton-Tucker found himself in the starting lineup with James, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all sitting out as healthy scratches. Building off his lone start as a rookie, which came in the NBA bubble against the Sacramento Kings, Horton-Tucker scored 19 points to go with nine rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“It was a blessing and a great opportunity getting the start tonight. I just wanted to come in and fulfill with what they wanted me to do. That was great for me,” Horton-Tucker said. “I appreciate it. It was a great experience and great opportunity for me to have early on this year. I just appreciated it. I felt good out there.”

The praise wasn’t limited to social media or postgame videoconferences. At one point during the game, Horton-Tucker was a topic of conversation between Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and Lakers guard Wesley Matthews, the two marveling at Horton-Tucker’s age.

The second-year forward just turned 20, helping add to expectations that seem to be growing by the day.

“’Special’ is definitely the word to describe his game,” Matthews said Saturday following practice. “He’s young, but he’s got all the tools. He’s a dog. He’s tough on the offensive end, the defensive end. He’s crafty. He’s got some stuff to him, and he’s only gonna get better.”

Highlights from the Lakers’ 87-81 preseason win over the Clippers at Staples Center on Friday.

Coach Frank Vogel has been one of the loudest voices talking up Horton-Tucker, whom the Lakers drafted out of Iowa State at No. 46 last year after trading into the second round.

“I would say he continues to impress. The young man has a great attitude, a great spirit, comes to work every day with humility, he just goes out there and kicks people’s butts, quite frankly. He’s a heck of a talent …” Vogel said this week. “I’m coaching him harder than the rest of the players on the team, a lot of the veterans, because I think he’s got a chance to be really good for us immediately, not just down the road.”

After Horton-Tucker’s game Friday, Vogel was again complimentary — but his criticisms said even more for his expectations.

“He didn’t even finish well tonight at the rim. He’s still getting his legs under him a little bit,” Vogel said. “But still had 19 and nine, and great performance. Good start.”

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were on the court together as Clippers starters in the exhibition opener — a sight the team hopes to see often this season.

Horton-Tucker proved in limited exposure in the Lakers’ series with the Houston Rockets last postseason that he could provide positive minutes, and although the preseason opener didn’t change that view, the Lakers still have a crowded projected rotation.

“Somehow, hopefully I’ll be able to play,” Horton-Tucker said. “I take my time every day and just continue to do what they tell me. Hopefully it pays off.”

So far so good, with Horton-Tucker building trust with the people that matter most.

“He just has a great instinct for the game. And his skill set is very versatile. I definitely think he’s a mature young man,” Vogel said. “I think he’s further along in his ability than we all thought he would be at that age. I feel like we got a heck of a player in the second round last year, so the future’s bright for that young man.”

Caruso injured

Lakers guard Alex Caruso, who played a crucial role off the bench during their championship season, didn’t practice Saturday after suffering a hip injury in the preseason opener.

Vogel called the injury a “hip flexor strain” and said Caruso won’t play Sunday against the Clippers. The hope is he’ll be available once the Lakers return to practice Tuesday.

The Lakers still haven’t decided whether James or Davis will play Sunday, Vogel said.


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