The youngest Laker, Talen Horton-Tucker, is stealing the show so far in the preseason

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Dan Woike
·4 min read
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LOS ANGELES,, CALIF. - DEC. 13, 2020. Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker powers to the basket.
Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker powers to the basket during a 131-106 preseason win over the Clippers at Staples Center on Sunday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Talen Horton-Tucker extended his comically long arm and swiped the ball from Kawhi Leonard, the kind of play that Leonard usually delivers (and almost never receives). The Lakers’ second-year wing then got open in the corner in front of his team’s bench and splashed in a three-point basket.

It was another showy performance for the 20-year-old Horton-Tucker, another piece of evidence that the preseason sensation might end up being a minutes stealer this season.

“It’s going to make my job difficult for sure,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have a very deep team. No minutes are guaranteed.”

Horton-Tucker’s latest case for playing time — 33 points and 10 rebounds — keyed the Lakers’ second straight exhibition win over the Clippers on Sunday, 131-106, with his dunks and scoop-shot layups bringing teammates out of their seats.

In the preseason opener, teammates and opponents were marveling how he could be only 20. On Sunday, they just plain marveled.

LeBron James, who once again sat out along with Anthony Davis, stood and mimicked the way Horton-Tucker contorted his body and arms to find the perfect angle for a finish in the paint, with the young Laker building more confidence with seemingly every bounce of the ball.

“Play free,” the Lakers bench told him. “Do what you do.”

And that’s a little bit of everything.

Horton-Tucker added four assists and four steals while starting the game essentially as the Lakers’ point guard — a sign of the team’s belief in him as a playmaker.

The Lakers rested new additions Wesley Matthews and Dennis Schroder along with James and Davis and played without other young players Kostas Antetokounmpo and Devontae Cacok because of “excused absences” presumed to be related to the NBA’s health policy.

It was an early reminder of the road the Lakers and the rest of the NBA are about to go down — with the pandemic changing up rosters at a moment’s notice.

“That’s the norm for the NBA season outside the bubble,” Vogel said. “It’s been an expectation for our team that it’s going to be abnormal to be at full strength.”

With a longer runway, Horton-Tucker started for the second straight game and played 41 minutes. The Lakers finished an incredible 36 points better than the Clippers with him on the floor.

Less showy and less surprising was Marc Gasol, the Lakers’ new center and presumed opening-night starter, standing at the top of the key, holding the ball over his head like a soccer player readying for a throw-in.

It’s a position he’s been in throughout his 12 seasons in the NBA, a place where he’s as dangerous as any big man in the league.

“NBA players, basketball players in general, when they know they have a guy that will throw them the ball, cutting aggressiveness picks up,” Vogel said. “And we came into the game knowing we were going to play through Marc a lot at the top of the key. Our guys had a great mind-set to really move aggressively without the basketball and then Marc would find you in the paint.”

Gasol played 22 minutes in his preseason debut Sunday evening, confirming the buzz out of the first week of training camp that the veteran center has fit in seamlessly with his new team.

When Gasol is at the top of the key with the ball, he’s like a quarterback with plenty of time in the pocket, patiently waiting for a receiver to slip open.

Sunday, he found Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a slick route to the basket for a score. A simple pass led a cutting Kyle Kuzma for another.

Gasol finished with five assists — all more impactful plays than any of his six points or four rebounds.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket against Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket against Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma during the second quarter Sunday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

And then there were the hockey assists — the pass to set up the pass — that helped ignite the Lakers’ hot shooting night Sunday when they went an obscene 18 for 25 from three-point range.

Eventually, it’ll even aid James and Davis by opening more space for the Lakers’ megastars on the wings.

“It’s just having another option, another tool even, for them to score easily. Once they’re worried about the high post or the top of the key area, normally the guy on the ball is going to try to pressure me and then be worried about me while so much of the action is going on on the side, so they’re going to have a little hole for them to operate,” Gasol said.

“So, just trying to help in any way possible. That’s what I’m here for.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.