All offseason, the Los Angeles Lakers have been associated with the word ‘old’. 10 out of 14 players on the active roster, headlined by LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, are 32 and over. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis headlines the four players in their 20s.
At just 20 years old, Talen Horton-Tucker is entering his third season with the Purple and Gold. While he’s not yet a star, the youngster could be the difference-maker for the Lakers’ championship aspirations.
Talen Horton-Tucker became a valuable role player last season
Horton-Tucker’s first season in the NBA was similar to how most second-round picks start off their careers. The former Iowa State Cyclone saw the court in just six regular-season games, four of which were in the bubble. He was inactive for the majority of LA’s playoff run, which ended with a Larry O’Brien Trophy.
However, THT took advantage of the chance to prove himself ahead of his second season. Horton-Tucker was a preseason star, averaging 20.5 points in 31.6 minutes over four games. He also averaged 6.5 rebounds, a team-high 2.2 steals, and shot 54.7% from the field and 53.8% from three. Horton-Tucker earned a rotation spot for the season, averaging 9.0 points in just over 20 minutes in 65 games.
Beyond the athletism and talent, head coach Frank Vogel appreciates THT’s attitude.
“Internal confidence goes a long way,” said Vogel on Spectrum SportsNet’s “Lakeshow” podcast. “And what you love about him is that he does have that humility and demeanor of being a sponge and knowing he’s a young player and wanting to get better and have a ‘whatever I can do to help the team type of mindset.’ He’s got the right attitude, but he’s also got tremendous internal confidence and guts.”
The Lakers rewarded Horton-Tucker with a sizable extension
After a solid second season, Horton-Tucker became a restricted free agent. Unsurprisingly, given his age and increasing potential, numerous teams took an interest. One Eastern Conference executive even went as far as to say the 6-foot-4 guard with a 7-1 wingspan deserved a max deal.
However, LA kept their promising youngster home, signing him to a three-year pact worth $30.78 million. The contract, which pays Horton-Tucker an average of $10.26 million per season, makes him the fourth-highest paid Laker behind only James, Davis, and Westbrook. That means established veterans like Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard are taking home less money this year than the 20-year-old with five career starts.
“I feel like it was a no-brainer to come back where I started,” Horton-Tucker said after the deal was official. “I want to win a championship and compete for it, so being around this group of guys that we’re going to have is going to be a plus for me.”
THT might be the missing piece for the Los Angeles Lakers
On a star-dominant team, it’s easy to push Horton-Tucker aside. As long as James and Davis are at a high level, he won’t be the face of the team. But the Lakers didn’t make THT their fourth-highest paid player if they didn’t expect big things to come.
Horton-Tucker will undoubtedly see increased minutes, as well as additional starts. He can be a spot-up shooter, slasher, or playmaker at any of the 1, 2, or 3 positions. But his biggest impact could come on the defensive end, as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Alex Caruso have all moved on.
“You talk about the defensive end, and who’s going to be that guy, he[Horton-Tucker] has been challenged,” Vogel said. “Yes, we did [invest in him]. For good reason. He has the ability, the last few years as a young player he’s gotten a little bit better as we’ve gone, but he’s one of those guys, that looking at KCP and Alex not being here, can you step up and fill into that role of guarding some of the other best players.”
The Lakers won the title in 2020 thanks in part to a league-leading defense. So it’s a big deal Vogel trusts Horton-Tucker to take on the role of defending the best opposing players on the court. If THT can be that elite defender, it could put the Lakers over the top.