The Los Angeles Lakers have a rich winning tradition that dates back to the early days of the NBA in the late 1940s and lives on to this day.
Both the Lakers and Boston Celtics franchises have won 17 championships, but the Lakers’ titles have been more evenly spread out throughout the years. They have stood on top of the league in seven out of the nine decades that the league has existed in, with the 1960s dominated by the Celtics and the 1990s standing out as the only title-less eras.
The Lakers have consistently battled deep into the playoffs through the years, though they have had their fair share of low points and disappointing stretches. The team’s darkest days were triggered by Kobe Bryant tearing his Achilles in April 2013 and they proceeded to miss the postseason over the next six years before finally reclaiming the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2020.
Those six years were the worst stretch in Laker history and the only other time that they missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons was in the 1970s when they missed the ‘75 and ‘76 postseason.
It was a humiliating time for Los Angeles as they transitioned and tried to move on from the Bryant era. At the tail end of his career, the team was shackled by his hefty contract and it left them scrapping for whichever players they could sign on affordable deals. This left them with the most random and uninspiring line-ups that were a far cry from their glory days.
The supposed silver lining to their patchwork line-ups and the losses that they racked up was that it led to lottery picks. Unfortunately, the Lakers did not have much luck there either. D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball were picked with the second overall pick in three consecutive years. They have now moved on to other teams and have still not blossomed into the kind of star that is expected from this lofty draft position.
While they blew their lottery picks, they instead found success at the tailend of the draft. In 2014, they picked Jordan Clarkson, last year’s NBA Sixth Man of the Year with the Utah Jazz, using the 46th overall pick to kick off a stretch that saw them select at least one serviceable player in the second round every year until 2019.
The sole exception was 2015 when they chose small forward Anthony Brown who only lasted three seasons in the NBA. Their other picks–Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant, and Svi Mykhailiuk–are still in the league and have carved out a nice niche for themselves as solid role players.
They have not had the opportunity to use a second round pick in the two most recent drafts due to trades since the arrival of LeBron James has shifted the team’s focus towards a “win-now” mentality. While the aforementioned second round picks have now moved on to other teams, their most recent one still remains with them and is starting to look like the best one of the bunch.
Just like Clarkson, Talen Horton-Tucker was drafted via the 46th overall pick in the NBA Draft. He was originally picked by the Orlando Magic before being traded to the Lakers on draft night for their 2020 second round selection.
Over his first two seasons, he played sparingly on their veteran laden teams, yet he shined when given the opportunity to play. Horton-Tucker received spot minutes during the Lakers’ run to the 2020 NBA title and slowly eased into more playing time, averaging 20 minutes per game in 65 appearances during their failed title defense last year.
The beginning of his ‘20-’21 season was delayed by a month due to surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb, but once he made it onto the court, he announced his return with a bang.
In his first three games, Horton-Tucker averaged 23.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, two assists, and 1.3 steals in 34 minutes to boost the Lakers in the absence of LeBron James. It is easy to forget that the third-year guard is still only 20 years old, especially with the veteran savvy that he has displayed so far this season. He does not rush and force the issue on offense, playing with a poise that exceeds his years.
Horton-Tucker has always been a lethal slasher and he has only continued to improve on this aspect of his game. His ability to read what the defense gives him and take advantage of it sets him apart from most players his age. What stands out the most though is his improved three-point shot.
He hit 40% on almost seven attempts per game and if he can continue to hit these shots at this clip, it will enable Los Angeles head coach Frank Vogel to keep him on the court for prolonged stretches alongside James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook as a capable floor spacing threat.
As promising as his first three games were, he still remains a work in progress as seen in his fourth game which was against their archrival Boston Celtics. Horton-Tucker remained in the starting line-up as the Lakers welcomed back James and what was supposed to be a grand night turned into a disaster.
The short-handed Celtics blew them out by 22 points, 130-108, and Horton-Tucker fell back to Earth, finishing with only two points. He missed all of his six shot attempts and salvaged his night from being a scoreless one by making his two free throws.
This experience should only help him get better and his fit alongside James will only improve as time passes when they figure out how to coexist.
The exposure that he gets as one of the younger members of this tenured roster filled with accomplished elder statesmen bodes well for his development and it seems like he has embraced their influence.
James in particular has been known to ride his more youthful teammates hard and it is difficult to identify a young prospect who has actually improved this much while playing alongside him over his historic 18-year career.
This is by no means a knock on James and is instead a complement to Horton-Tucker’s resilience and willingness to learn. The progress that he has made since he was drafted in 2019 is a testament to the work that he has put in and the attitude that he has brought with him.
There is still a long way to go in Horton-Tucker’s career and it is still too soon to anoint him as the team’s next great superstar, yet the early returns are overwhelmingly encouraging. While this Laker team has not played up to expectations so far, the strong play of their young guard is a cause for optimism.
Whether or not this season ends with them raising up their 18th NBA championship to finally overtake Boston, the silver lining of this year could be the potential breakout of Horton-Tucker as their star for the next generation.