CHARLOTTE — As Talen Horton-Tucker exited the court on Saturday night, a smattering of Utah Jazz fans crowded around the visiting team tunnel in Charlotte and chanted, “T.H.T! T.H.T!”
The Jazz guard had just scored 37 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed nine rebounds, coming just a single rebound shy of his first triple-double and the Jazz fans in attendance weren’t going to let him leave the building without showing some love.
The NBA stats crew, after a postgame review, rescinded one of Horton-Tucker’s rebounds shortly after the game concluded, so he actually ended up two rebounds short of the elusive Jazz regular-season triple-double, but that didn’t take away from what he did to help push the Jazz to a 119-111 win over the Charlotte Hornets.
Though the Jazz also had help with a huge 17-point, 16-rebound outing from rookie Walker Kessler and other contributions across the roster, the Jazz wouldn’t have been able to even sniff a win if it hadn’t been for Horton-Tucker.
“Very clearly the story of the game is Talen Horton-Tucker,” Jazz head coach Will Hardy said. “I am incredibly hard on Talen, I have been all season. He knows that is because I believe in him; in his talent and his ability. He’s still young — he just turned 22 — and he has some real physical gifts that were on display tonight.”
From his ability to drive and finish through contact and how he switches directions and spins in the lane to get into an open seam, to his ability to draw the defense into the paint and find an open man out on the perimeter or crash in and use his abnormally lengthy wingspan to grab rebounds, Horton-Tucker was doing it all on Saturday night and he was doing it effectively and efficiently when the Jazz desperately needed it.
The Jazz’s leading scorer and breakout star of the season, Lauri Markkanen, was struggling to score on baskets that are usually easy money. But against the Hornets, nothing seemed to be going in.
Additionally, Jordan Clarkson (finger sprain) and Collin Sexton (hamstring strain) were still in street clothes, so if the Jazz were going to make up for Markkanen’s usual production, they were going to need someone else to step into a larger role.
Horton-Tucker started out this road trip struggling a bit himself, but over the last two-and-a-half games, he’s seemed to strike a more nuanced balance. On Saturday it seemed like everything just lined up perfectly and once he got going, there was no way to stop him.
“He was spectacular,” Hardy said. “And it’s not a little thing how he’s approached this season. He has not always gotten what he wanted, he’s had moments where he was out of the rotation during this season, and he’s never complained, he’s worked really, really hard every day … and he’s taken hard coaching from me. I’m just really happy to see him have some success like this in a big game. When Lauri wasn’t playing great and we needed somebody to step up — J.C. and Collin are out — and all the hard work showed tonight.”
Saturday’s game and Horton-Tucker’s performance does not conclude the experiment of using him as a primary ball handler. While the recent games have shown some flashes of efficiency and improvement, he needs to be able to string together more than just a couple of games in which he is making quick, good decisions.
But, these games with the Jazz, especially while Sexton nurses his hamstring injury, and the Jazz are lacking other true point guards, are incredibly important for Horton-Tucker and the future of his NBA career.
“Oh 100%,” he said. “The reps that I’ve been getting here, I hadn’t got those in my career yet. So, being able to get them here, I’ve got to take advantage of it and try to turn it into something.”
Horton-Tucker has a player option for next season for $11 million. But, the 22-year-old wants to set himself up for success beyond turning 23. Showing that he can be a decision-maker and that he can handle himself and produce and facilitate are not just things that he needs to show the Jazz if he wants to remain on this team, but things he needs to show the rest of the NBA, because there’s no guarantee that he will remain in Utah past next season.
“We’re very proud that he’s a part of our program,” Hardy said. “The way that he’s going about this season — from a work standpoint, from a patience standpoint, competing and controlling the things he can control everyday — that’s what we want to be about in Utah. That’s what we want the program to be about and he embodies that.”
Those are certainly traits that the Jazz can either embrace and foster or use as selling points when and if they decide to make another move. And like I said, these last handful of games do not an entire season make, but they can certainly serve as a launch pad if Horton-Tucker can continue to build on this success.