Prior to the start of the 2021-22 preseason, Frank Vogel went out of his way to talk about Talen Horton-Tucker on Spectrum SportsNet’s “Lakeshow” podcast. Vogel wasn’t discussing the 20-year-old’s natural and elite ability to get to the rim. He wasn’t even talking about his dazzling layup package or even strides made in the offseason on his shooting, a missing piece to his offensive game that could propel him to All-Star status if it improved in a big way. No, Vogel wasn’t even talking about offense when bringing up THT. Instead, Vogel talked about a defensive challenge that was given to THT.
“Let’s talk about THT,” Vogel stated to the two hosts, “You talk about the defensive end, and who’s going to be that guy, he’s been challenged… 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.”
Sadly, it took a while for Talen Horton-Tucker to showcase his defense after a torn ligament in his thumb necessitated surgery before the regular season even began. After five games played with the Lakers so far, it’s definitely been apparent that Vogel and the team value THT’s defensive potential as he has drawn some tough assignments in Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo among others. Vogel knows this, saying after the loss against the Celtics (h/t LeBron Wire) that the team is “grooming” THT to “guard the other team’s best player”.
It’s nice and all that Vogel loves pumping up THT to the media, but how has he actually fared when playing defense in his first five games? Let’s take a look at the film and find out.
I’ll get into THT’s one-on-one defense later, but the off-ball defense is nearly just as important for him in Vogel’s defensive scheme. Below you’ll see starting with a video of THT hustling back in transition for a block with the following four clips showing him making the correct rotations to cover the rolling big man in the middle of the paint.
However, just as much as he’s shown enough awareness to make the correct rotation while he’s on the strong side, he’s shown just as many times that he will sometimes fall asleep and lose his man. That happens in the first two possessions of the video below.
In possession number three, you’ll see THT basically stop covering Devin Vassell while he rotates up to the wing from the corner for an easy three-pointer. After that, THT decides to leave Doug McDermott wide-open to go double Vassell with Russell Westbrook despite there not really being a need for that.
In the final two possessions of the video above, THT has trouble in pick-and-roll coverage. On the first possession against the Bucks, he’s not fast enough downhill to catch up to the ball-handler and roll man, causing an easy basket for Giannis Antetokounmpo. In the final possession, THT just has a mental blunder thinking Anthony Davis needs help with DeMar DeRozan, leaving Zach LaVine open for a three.
If Frank Vogel does plan to use THT to guard the opposing team’s player, then this part of his defense might be more important than what is laid out above.
Vogel stated these specific plans after the Celtics game, however, he was definitely using THT to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo late in the Lakers’ loss against the Bucks. THT also covered Jayson Tatum for a considerable amount of time and, to be honest, the results were not flattering for THT. In the below video, the first three possessions feature baskets from THT’s man that come from THT shading the wrong side of the ball-handler. These mistakes could be fixed to prevent these types of baskets.
However, the rest of the video features THT getting beat off the dribble, as well as some situations where the 6’4” guard is just too small for the likes of Antetokounmpo, Tatum, and DeRozan, even with his 7’1” wingspan.
He did have some solid moments when playing one-on-one defense, with those being seen below.
There was one last aspect of THT’s defense that I didn’t think would stand out to me, and that is his closeouts of three-point shooters. THT seemed to often be a step-or-two too slow on these closeouts, sometimes tagging an opposing player on the way that he did not need to be tagging. There’s also one instance where he jumps wildly on a closeout where the three-point shooter pump fakes, eventually resulting in an easy basket for the Bucks.
It’s a very minor part of his game, however, you’ll see in the video that a number of these poor closeouts result in three points for the other team.
Ultimately, with his existing knowledge of Vogel’s system as well as his effort and wingspan, Talen Horton-Tucker can be a key cog in this defense. He presents a much better option as a team defender when compared to the likes of Malik Monk or Russell Westbrook, but I don’t know if he has the height or the skills to guard the opposing team’s best player like Vogel desires. Sure, some of the bad results above came against Antetokounmpo and Tatum, two of the league’s best offensive players…but there’s almost always someone on the other team that is an elite bucker-getter in the NBA.
Talen Horton-Tucker does deserve the caveat of the fact that these were his first few games of the season. Maybe with some additional playing time this season, he can build himself up to be the formidable defender that Vogel wants.