Talen Horton-Tucker returned to action on Tuesday after a week in health and safety protocols. The guard was one of several Los Angeles Lakers players to test positive for COVID-19 during an outbreak that has hampered both the purple and gold as well as the entirety of the NBA.
Unfortunately for the 21-year-old, his return to the court did not go as planned. Horton-Tucker made just one of his 13 field goal attempts, finishing with three points and two rebounds. The Lakers were outscored by 18 when he was on the floor, the third-worst mark on the short-handed squad as they lost by 20 points to the Phoenix Suns. It was a low-point in what has been a tumultuous and largely disappointing season for a player that the team invested a lot of money and faith in during the offseason.
THT spoke to the media after the poor showing and revealed that he had not touched a basketball or been outside until Monday. He also detailed some of the challenges of returning from the absence despite not ever feeling truly sick:
THT says he was in isolation for the last week and didn't get to touch a basketball until yesterday.
"I didn't play to the best of my ability… I'm just trying to get my rhythm back, my legs, my breathing. It's a lot."
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) December 22, 2021
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for THT who has had his role changed or faced an injury or illness every time it’s felt as though he has started to build some momentum. His teammate, Dwight Howard, who left health and safety protocols the same day did not even feature in Tuesday’s loss perhaps showing just how difficult it can be to return from the illness even as a healthy athlete with few, if any, symptoms.
Still, it’s abundantly clear that THT’s issues this season are far more than a return from illness. He has not been the player the Lakers assumed he would be when they gave him a big contract extension. There could be plenty of reasons for that, including intangible ones like the weight of having expectations for the first time in his professional career or changing roles that do not allow him to get comfortable in one situation for a team that has far too many moving parts this season. There are also tangible reasons, such as the disappointing evolution — or lack, thereof — of the 21-year-old’s jump shooting and the coaching staff deploying him as a starter alongside ball dominant players that do not allow the young player to do what he’s best at.
Horton-Tucker turning things around this season may or may not play a role in the Lakers becoming the contenders most expected coming into the season. One could argue that the team’s issues are far too big for one player to fix by simply performing better. Much more clear cut, however, is that continuing development of THT is a major factor in the Lakers’ more long-term future, whether that is a future with the young guard performing with his fellow Chicagoan, Anthony Davis, or one in which he is used as trade fodder to make roster improvements elsewhere.