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Lakers newsletter: Talen Horton-Tucker has been the talk of the town

Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker draws a foul as he shoots under pressure.
Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, left, draws a foul as he shoots under pressure during a preseason win over the Clippers on Sunday.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Welcome back to volume two of the Lakers’ newsletter, coming to you from an empty arena — the only place a father of a 17-month-old boy can get some quiet. See, I can write that here because there’s a less than 0% chance that my wife will read this.

It’s been a crazy first week of the NBA exhibition season, and I have to tell you that covering games from an empty Staples Center is really bizarre. The last two times I had walked the concourse of the arena were Kobe Bryant’s memorial and on March 10, the final game before the shutdown when I asked people if they felt safe in a crowd (THEY DID!).

I’ve taken a few walks around the arena since going back to work at Staples Center this week, and the emptiness and darkness are flat-out eerie. Because the concession stands are closed, the lights are off. And without that glow in the arena, it feels like you’re trespassing, kind of like you’re inside a shopping mall after the doors have closed.

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Yeah, it’s weird. But it’s good to be back.

On to the writing…

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THT, he’s dynamite

Inside a convention center ballroom during the playoffs, a Lakers coach milled around the edge of a makeshift practice court. The team’s regulars and stars were either getting treatment or on their way back to their hotel rooms while the Lakers on the outside of the rotation scrimmaged.

Nineteen-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker made a play, another flash of the potential that had been popping in limited minutes earlier in the bubble. And a smile crept across the staffer’s face.

“That [dude] might start for us next year,” that coach, who happened to be Frank Vogel, said.

The compressed offseason and the desire to rest regulars put Horton-Tucker into that starting lineup way faster than that coach could’ve imagined. And now the Lakers have to make room for LeBron James to keep him out of THT’s way.

Now 20, Horton-Tucker has Lakers fans buzzing after a pair of terrific performances in exhibition wins against the Clippers. During a 33-10 game by Horton-Tucker in preseason night No. 2, the Lakers’ bench continued to boost him with each basket or key defensive stop.

“They were just telling me to keep it going,” Horton-Tucker said. “Every time I’m on the court they’re just telling me to play free and do what I do. So just being able to have that support and confidence from those guys is a plus for me. It just tells me to go out and play my game and be free.”

Have the Lakers truly found another gem, as Magic Johnson tweeted, and are we in the earliest days of seeing a player who is truly special, like James thinks, or, as one executive said, is THT just another product of the preseason?

NBA scouts and executives have varied opinions, hesitant to go too far based off a couple of preseason games. But there’s excitement around the league with the Lakers, at least, having unearthed a possible rotation player in the middle of the second round (no small feat).

“People were all over the board on him [in college],” one NBA executive said of Horton-Tucker’s draft stock.

One scout visited Iowa State to get a look at future lottery pick Tyrese Haliburton only to have Cyclones coach Steve Prohm tell him that he also should pay attention to the baby-faced, chubby, 6-foot-4 tweener.

Horton-Tucker boosted his stock by playing well in front of tons of NBA decision-makers and evaluators at the Maui Invitational Tournament, but concerns about his body, his conditioning (which is tied to work ethic) and his shooting kept him on the board until the 46th pick of last year’s draft.

The Lakers moved into the second round to make the pick, sending cash and a future second-round pick to the Orlando Magic to get him. The Lakers, like some other Western Conference contenders, had identified him as a priority in the round.

Fans of him loved his skill — “he had some wiggle in his game” one revered scout told The Times — and his strength. Critics worried that he might not be able to bully pros the same way.

“There was a ton of hype last season,” one NBA scout said. “I just kind of thought he was overweight, out of shape and couldn’t really play point guard.”

But beginning in the bubble, Horton-Tucker began to transform his body. An audition with Lakers stars resting opened the door for him to earn a pair of appearances in the Western Conference semifinals. Still, rotation minutes in Year 2 didn’t appear to be in cards thanks to the team’s offseason moves.

There’s no clear path to an expanded role on a nightly basis, and some scouts wonder if his first two games are even an indication he’d help the Lakers win.

“What makes a player valuable on a contender aren’t the things that get you noticed,” one scout said. “You need to have role player skills. He’d be the fifth option on the court and the fifth option never has the ball.”

To fit in, especially on a team with James and Anthony Davis, role players need to defend and hit open jump shots when the ball finds you. At 20, it seems like Horton-Tucker understands that.

“Being able to compete on the defensive end is going to be something that helps me get on the court,” he said Sunday.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker, left, draws a foul as he shoots under pressure.
Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker draws a foul as he shoots under pressure against the Clippers.
(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

The good news is that there’s probably no better time to be an 11th or a 12th man. Contact tracing and COVID protocols could pull a player out of the rotation without warning, elevating others into bigger opportunities.

With Vogel viewing his final two preseason games as tune-ups for the season, we’ll get an idea where Horton-Tucker fits in his plans as the season opens.

Even if he’s on the outside of the rotation, NBA executives don’t expect that to last for long. Horton-Tucker, who is a restricted free agent after the season, has a ton of fans in the Lakers organization and, as a part of the Klutch Sports family, is represented by a powerful voice.

The skills might be too seductive to keep sidelined — the long wingspan, the basketball instincts and crafty, mature offensive game all seem like they can help somehow.

“I’m a big fan,” one NBA executive said. “I just really like his game.”

The Lakers do too.

Interview with Chris McGee

Chris McGee
(Los Angeles Times)

Chris McGee is the voice of Laker fans because he’s such an earnest one. From the AVP sand to the Spectrum Sports studios, Chris McGee is as well-liked of a guy as you’ll find in this town and that’s why he took my call!

Let’s check in with him about THT, Giannis and more in this week’s unnamed video segment.

Watch the interview with Chris McGee here.

The Full-Court Text line is open

Reminder, you can sign up to text with me here — no selfies, I promise.

Steve from Nashville texts: “In your experience, considering there’s no fans, will we see better basketball? Will teams experiment with other forms of the usual pick-and-roll offense? In other words, does the lack of pressure from fans free up teams to be more creative offensively?”

I don’t think the lack of fans will have any impact on strategy except for teams maybe trying to disguise their calls a little bit — with no actual crowd noise, people on or near the court can hear almost everything. But even with the compressed offseason, I think we’ll actually see better basketball this year for one reason: fewer hangovers.

When I talked with people inside the bubble about why they thought games were so competitive, one of the reasons they cited was that everyone was getting plenty of rest. Stuck inside a resort with no access to the outside world, there was almost nothing to do.

Protocols for traveling teams this season are going to be strict and teams are going to be policing themselves as well, closing the door on some of the mischief that can happen on the road. With nowhere to go, maybe the trips become even more businesslike and players more focused.

Just a working theory that I came up with while having a double IPA.

In case you missed it

LeBron James and Anthony Davis will make preseason debut when Lakers play Suns

Nike Kobe 6 ‘Grinch’ sneaker set to drop Christmas Eve

Kyle Kuzma finds his productive state: Takeaways from Lakers’ win over Clippers

Pau Gasol back to the Lakers? Brother Marc can’t answer

Song of the week

BoDeans — “Good Things”

The Lakers’ Giannis dreams — which always were really just dreams — ended for the time being Tuesday when Antetokounmpo decided to sign a five-year extension with the Milwaukee Bucks.

While it might be a loss for super teams, it’s a win for competitive balance, a victory for the NBA’s small markets and a nice reminder that the richest contract in history plus the comforts of home can keep you warm even in a Wisconsin winter.

I love Milwaukee — always have, always will. I spent a ton of summer days on the lake listening to live music. This week’s song is by one of Wisconsin’s most beloved bands, the BoDeans.

Even if Giannis isn’t coming, there are still a lot of “Good Things” in the Lakers’ future.

Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at daniel.woike@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!


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