It’s a game in late March between the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks, and the six-minute mark of the third quarter has just passed. 

Talen Horton-Tucker, defended by John Collins, holds the ball and is stationed near the right corner, with Montrezl Harrell sealing off Danilo Gallinari in the dunker spot. An entry pass would require some creativity, but it’s certainly feasible and would likely bear fruitful results. 

Horton-Tucker doesn’t opt for it. Instead, he sizes up Collins, pushes a crossover dribble toward the middle, jolts Collins off-balance and wiggles back to the right for an acrobatic reverse layup over the outstretched arm of his Hawks counterpart. The decision pans out. Los Angeles trims the lead to 64-55.

A couple of thoughts culminate from that play. One: Horton-Tucker’s finishing ingenuity is dazzlingly impressive. Two: Boy, that was challenging. Couldn’t there have been an easier way? And broadly, that clip feels like an apt brush with which to paint a broad stroke of his offensive game through two seasons. The highlights are joyful and eye-popping. Dig deeper though, and so much of his production appears laborious. 

Laborious does not have to be an antonym for effective. Difficult shot-making is often part of the package for high-level offensive players. Yet so is making actions look simple. Too often, Horton-Tucker skews closely toward the former. Figuring out pathways to the latter is critical. 

He doesn’t turn 21 until late November and was a notably improved player when comparing him in December to May. The Lakers did not extend him a three-year, $30.8 million deal solely for who he is at this juncture. Growth is assuredly expected and baked into the rationale behind that deal. Discerning who he is, who he can become and how those complement or run counterintuitively to one another is important ahead of this third NBA season. 

Chiefly, he’s a slasher to his core. Horton-Tucker takes 54.6% of his shots inside the restricted area, third highest by any guard behind Ben Simmons (69.5%) and Bruce Brown (61.2%). Long balls and the intermediate game are secondary options routinely treated as afterthoughts. Horton-Tucker wants to live at the rim. 

His improvisational nature aids him in these pursuits. He’s constantly busting out counters to frequent the paint and transport through narrow windows. He’s excellent at covering ground after picking up his dribble with elongated strides and can vary these strides to flummox defenders. At 6-foot-4, 234 pounds, he’ll bowl through dudes to chisel out space.

Despite “only” ranking in the 23rd percentile in effective field goal percentage, Horton-Tucker can convert from an array of angles. His finishing touch is feathery. There’s an aspect of distinguished fluidity present in his deliveries around the rim. He kisses in finishes from unorthodox spots off the glass and adjusts his release point depending on the defense. The peaks are a masterclass of innovation and dexterity.

With both LeBron James and Anthony Davis healthy entering 2021-22 and Russell Westbrook now a Laker, the volume of Horton-Tucker’s self-creation reps to showcase this finishing are threatened. Where it will stand to carry more value is in an off-ball role, attacking advantages conceived by the team’s offensive pillars and contexts where his finishing expertise is leveraged schematically. 

Last year, as Los Angeles faltered offensively due to James and Davis’ injuries and insufficient creation talent behind them, Horton-Tucker’s prowess, warts and all, holstered greater appeal. That’s no longer the case. The Lakers added a third engine and swapped some defensively inclined auxiliary players for offensively inclined ones. Horton-Tucker has to thrive off the ball because there’s less incentive for Los Angeles to stomach his in-game growing pains as it aims for a second title in three seasons. 

Of course, those growing pains may shrink this year. Again, he’ll play five weeks of his third season before turning 21 years old. Reducing those growing pains means addressing a few areas offensively. 

Blossoming as a more willing and adept spot-up threat beyond the arc is paramount. Typically, his first, second and third instinct is to attack off the catch. Horton-Tucker’s 3-point rate is 26.8% ranked in the ninth percentile among guards. He took 54 off-the-dribble 3s and 76 catch-and-shoot 3s last season. There should be a wider disparity there. He also only netted 28.2% of those looks. Anecdotally, it did seem as though he grew a bit more comfortable launching off the rip as the season progressed, though he still must improve and be less wired to shoot on his terms instead of when the flow of a possession dictates. 

The collective shot selection can also be head-scratching. His passing vision waxes and wanes, prone to settling for premeditated reads rather than adapting contingent on defensive stimuli. He doesn’t have to expeditiously remedy all the issues mentioned, but carving out a rotation spot amid a crowded backcourt probably necessitates refinement in some of these areas, particularly the volume and effectiveness of his 3-ball.

James, Davis and Westbrook will consistently command the attention of multiple defenders and enable Horton-Tucker to puncture tilted floors. His slashing acumen will shine aplenty on these occasions and help assuage part of his floor-spacing and habitual concerns, even if they remain salient and help clarify the magnitude of his role. Given his creation limitations (more on them later), slotting him alongside guys sporting domineering on-ball gravity puts him in a preferable situation to utilize his downhill tendencies and flanks these initiators with suitable release valves.

Beyond the simple concept of spurring defenses into rotation and capitalizing upon that, Horton-Tucker was also periodically deployed as a screener and roller last season. That’s something worth continuing to explore, especially as the altered roster construction places a smaller emphasis on the need for his creation. There are avenues for offensive utility on this team, and they merely broaden with expected development. 

Assessing him through a contemporary lens and assessing him through the prism of who may be at age 25 are starkly different exercises, though. Many of his foremost flaws and potential assets may not be prevalent next season. This is the challenge for him and the Lakers, whose timelines can coexist but are inherently conflicting because the moment is now when arguably the greatest NBA player in history suits up for you at age 36 (soon to be 37). The drive to gauge the scope of all he may bring is not pressing in the way it might be if he were a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

A still-in-transit jumper is not the lone factor hamstringing his on-ball viability. His burst is not good. Rarely does he finish with his left hand. He does not take very efficient routes around screens or maximize their benefit. His handle is weaponized for negative space creation (working backward) and when afforded time to rev up, tight quarters or pressure reveal its faults. He has inordinately poor balance for someone who embraces contact and scores from such atypical angles inside. As a vertical athlete, he’s quite ground-bound and that proves thorny when the craft is not an ample surrogate.

Learning how to better use screens can come with time. The jumper is salvageable. Applying his burly frame to shield the ball as a driver in specific instances can be trained. But the tenuous balance and explosion vertically and horizontally might be hurdles to price in moving forward.

Our NBA Draft model, which analyzes countless factors – including volume and rate statistical analysis, popular consensus draft rankings and biographical information – to rank draft prospects, rated Horton-Tucker seventh overall leading up to the 2019 draft. 

To posit that the rosiest of projections (like ours) hinges on the jumper would be to treat it as a binary outcome rather than one to land on a spectrum. It should not be reduced to an either-or concept of whether he shoots effectively. There are layers within the poles of an either-or scale. Streamlining consistency in his approach is crucial. 

Horton-Tucker’s fluctuation from shot to shot is what breeds such disharmony between his tantalizing flashes and underwhelming composite. The variables are not always correlated with makes and misses, but they are responsible for such dissonance. This is not an anomaly for young guys, but it will continue to hinder his jumper until it is rectified. 

The rhythm, footwork and energy transfer are not consistent. Sometimes, the release looks well-ordered and easy. Other times, it looks like a burden to shoot. He’s not always on balance, both when he elevates and lands. The footwork varies between a hop into the shot and a 1-2 step into the shot. Even though he drills the first shot of this compilation, note how much more difficult the release and energy transfer appears to be than in the final two clips.

Tying together all these moving parts would help diversify his scoring profile and set up his driving game as less of the be-all, end-all in his approach. Better results from deep might be accompanied by heightened volume, too. He can establish the slashing as the headlining feature of his repertoire without investing nearly every resource into scoring at the rim as a 6-foot-4 guard. 

Maybe delightful pull-ups like these (even if the energy transfer on some is suboptimal) become an intermittently efficient source of self-creation? It’d also be an outlet to handling value via his skillful negative space creation. Earning the freedom and reaching the baseline production to take those sorts of pull-ups without repercussions is a lofty bar to clear, but it’s worth acknowledging at the very least. More succinctly, standing that tall in the hierarchy of an NBA offense is really tough. 

One manner in which he can discover more creation that doesn’t rely on such audacious, star-level shot-making is through the post and with a nifty little turnaround he’s incorporated off the bounce. He’s already one of the stronger guards in the NBA. Seeking mismatches inside to wield his finishing savvy and budding midrange comfort. Whether the latter is on post-ups or other creation methods, it seems like something worth building upon. 

The long ball, both on pull-ups and statically, might never fully materialize (notably, the former). His handle, burst and balance might always spell trouble. A niche turnaround and low-post game can help provide self-creation outside of those realms. 

Although he is in the process of further sharpening his passing vision and processing, he’s exhibited a handful of practical reads on the interior. Identifying shooters is not his forte and addressing that on this reconstructed Lakers squad would help his chances of a concrete role. But the interior chops on a team rostering James, Davis, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan are important, too. 

He has the capacity to fashion advantages and compromise defenses to open these reads. After forming a synergy with Harrell last season, it’s reasonable to wonder or hope the same could occur alongside Los Angeles’ new play-finishing big men. 

There’s some encouraging guile and execution present in his playmaking resume. He has a tendency to force the issue at the rim, which can yield Kobe Assists and those are quite welcomed on a team that could dominate the offensive glass. However, striking the proper balance between facilitating and individual scoring is vital for his long-term focus and the present-day situation. 

Deploying Horton-Tucker in lineups alongside multiple creators could elicit advantageous matchups for him. A Westbrook-Horton-Tucker-James trio is intriguing, though the perimeter defense is dubious (not because of James). Lineup-wise, how exactly the Lakers approach trying to juggle the acceleration of his development with their immediate goals is an underlying storyline this season. 

He absolutely could claim a prominent rotation spot because of his offensive exploits. The defense, though, is concerning. That’s a trend across most of Los Angeles’ guard options. From December to May, he exhibited some noteworthy growth. Even so, it’s still a glaring worry, especially because a few of the issues stem from physical inhibitors rather than skill-based ones. 

For instance, he’s fairly slow among NBA guards. That manifests on and off the ball. He struggles to stay tethered with off-ball motion, which thrusts teammates into help responsibilities and leaves the entire quintet scrambling. Regularly, he’s in no-man’s land, playing catch up as a result of his own physical deficiencies. On the ball, his lateral mobility is inadequate. Because he’s a poor screen navigator, he will open up his hips and relinquish on-ball angles to cede dribble penetration. 

Separate from the athletic constraints, he is a serial ball-watcher, though he was less so by the end of the season. He will garner consideration for minutes, but the downgrade in backcourt defense and offensive upgrades around him from last year might make it tougher to overlook his own blemishes on that end. 

A few details do land in his favor. He touts exceptionally swift, strong hands, which he parlays into pick-pockets, strips and stunts for steals. As a result of his slow footspeed, he became more prompt in executing a switch and peeling to rollers in ball screens over the course of the season. 

Similarly, he improved at employing Ice or Push coverage in pick-and-rolls, making use of his frame and mitigating the screen navigation problem. Projecting him as anything more than a slight negative at his peak feels like a stretch, but there’s enough to bank on his current status being a relic by then. 

Being a 20-year-old second-round pick on a team just a year removed from a title and rich with superstars and established veterans sounds like a murky environment through which to wade. The Lakers seemingly own some interval of trust in him, nonetheless. They allocated him a significant rotation role for lengthy portions of last season and gave him that three-year, $30.8 million deal six weeks ago.

He has much to clean up in his game. Guaranteeing him as a playoff rotation guy is modest. This ecosystem is not ideally conducive to uncovering everything he could offer in his prime. But he will get a chance, and there is undoubtedly an alluring package of skills.

If a segment of them coalesce this year, he’ll only further reinforce Los Angeles’ credence in him and solidify himself as someone with a future to monitor and smile about.

Research support provided by Evan Boyd. Design by Briggs Clinard.