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Talen Horton-Tucker delivers big performance the Lakers were waiting to see

Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) and Magic forward Chuma Okeke scramble for a loose ball.
Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker dives to the court in an effort to beat Magic forward Chuma Okeke to a loose ball on Sunday at Staples Center.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Before Sunday, the best way to watch Talen Horton-Tucker play this season was with your eyes closed. That way, you could see what the Lakers and coach Frank Vogel had since their season in the NBA bubble.

That’s when the team saw a key piece of the future — someone worth investing in and trusting sooner than later. The Lakers imagined someone who could be a terrific perimeter defender, a capable outside shooter and sometimes an unstoppable driver with a mature understanding of how to score.

Yet people who watched Horton-Tucker in the Lakers’ rotation a year ago and saw him flounder at times this season after returning from a thumb injury couldn’t have seen that complete of a picture.

On Sunday, though, in a win over Orlando, Horton-Tucker delivered the kind of performance that should make eyes open wide. He knocked down open shots on the perimeter, calmly and comfortably. He finished below the rim and above it.

Most importantly, Horton-Tucker used his long arms and quick hands to severely disrupt the Orlando offense.

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“The way he’s defending right now, the way he’s shooting it and shooting threes, and the way he’s always a threat to knife through the defense and get a layup or a paint-to-great [pass], those are attributes that we did see in him and why we invested in him and a role that we thought we would have for him,” coach Frank Vogel said Sunday.

LeBron James, who led the Lakers to a 3-1 record last week and is averaging nearly 30 points in his last 8 games, is the conference player of the week.

Horton-Tucker had a career-high six steals against Orlando, finishing with 19 points while making three of six three-point shots. The 19 points were his most in a month after Horton-Tucker debuted this season with a flurry of points in his first three games before falling into a slump.

“I’m just feeling comfortable now, just trying to settle down into the role that I’m gonna have to play for this team,” Horton-Tucker said. “Just trying to figure out where my shots are gonna come from and doing the things I got to do defensively is going to come. So just trying to take my time with that and I feel like as the season keeps going on, it’ll keep getting better.”

Horton-Tucker’s improvement is one of the unquestioned keys to the Lakers’ season on multiple fronts.

The better the 21-year-old wing plays, the more talent the Lakers can have on the court around LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. With the Lakers seeking players who can contribute on both ends of the court, the team’s vision for Horton-Tucker would solve a lot of early season problems. He also will be the name mentioned most in any trade rumors — the Lakers’ best young player with a contract value almost guaranteed to be necessary for the team to acquire anyone of significance.

The easiest solution would be for Horton-Tucker to play like he did against the Magic, effective on both ends of the floor, poised with the ball and consistently doing the right thing.

In the second half Sunday, with the Lakers in the midst of a 23-0 run, Horton-Tucker barreled up the left wing, James sprinting alongside of him. With the Lakers’ biggest star at full speed, he launched into the air for an alley-oop, another potential highlight during a game in which James had plenty.

But Horton-Tucker looked him off, ducking around the defense to wrap a pass to Avery Bradley in the corner for a three-pointer in front of the Lakers’ bench.

An oral history of why the Lakers’ deal to land Chris Paul was denied by the NBA in December 2011, and a deal to send the All-Star point guard to the Clippers was approved.

After the shot caused the Magic to call time out, James found his young teammate with a smile. Later, the two watched the play over again on the bench.

“It was a hell of a play,” James said.

And no one had to imagine it. They saw it clear as crystal.


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