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The Lakers X Factor For 2021-22 Season, And It’s Not Russell Westbrook

lakers russell westbrook carmelo anthony dwight howard malik monk wayne ellington talen horton tucker

During Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook‘s introductory Zooms with the Los Angeles Lakers, both future Hall of Famers spoke about relishing the process of establishing a championship-caliber team.

“As the season prolongs, we will figure it out,” Westbrook said. “There will be ups, there will be downs. That’s normal, that’s OK. We gonna figure out how to play the best way we want to play in order to win a championship.”

Anthony Davis is due for a bounce-back season after an injury-riddled 2020-21 campaign, while LeBron James — the #WashedKing — is feeling particularly disrespected.

The Lakers overhauled the majority of their roster and it will take months for chemistry to develop and to determine the efficacy of Rob Pelinka’s moves. Even though four of their free-agent signings (Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza) are familiar faces around the Lakers facilities, Frank Vogel (and his reshuffled staff) will need a fresh approach with this group.

That said, any continuity will come in handy. As it stands, besides LeBron, Davis, and Marc Gasol (whose return is not guaranteed), Los Angeles has one returning player from the 2020-21 squad — and the only free agent signing who pulled more than the taxpayer midlevel exception (Kendrick Nunn) or veteran’s minimum (everybody else): Talen Horton-Tucker.

Two days into free agency, the 20-year old (still! how?!) secured his first major NBA bag ahead of his third season, at the price of three years, $32 million.

“I feel like It was a no-brainer just to come back to where I started and run it back,” Horton-Tucker said after re-signing. “I want to win championships.”

THT is a unique asset on this roster, for reasons beyond his age, contract, and trade-ability. On the hardwood: the Lakers simply don’t have another player like him. (Does anyone?) Horton-Tucker stands 6’4 with a 7’1 wingspan and played last season at 234 pounds. However, that weight is probably going to come down this year, based on what we can glean from his summer activities.

Either way, his game is unorthodox. It’s largely below the rim, but his improving ball-handling and nasty feel allow him to thrive as a shot creator and paint attacker.

Going forward, the Lakers need him to become a better shooter, full stop.

Westbrook will offer more productive and voluminous penetration than Dennis Schroder and Alex Caruso did. THT — a career 28.5% three-point shooter — will be relied upon to space on more possessions than last season. Whether THT can become an off-ball threat will be a low-key pivotal storyline for Los Angeles.

Horton-Tucker’s defensive improvement may be more imperative to the Lakers. THT has the length and motor to be a plus defender; he just needs to hone his fundamentals and get quicker. A leaner physique should help.

“I still want to, first defensively, just get better all-around,” THT said earlier this month. “Try to use my youth and my length just to get after it. I want to continue to improve my three-point shooting, continue my play-making, a lot of different things like that. Just to grow around this group will be amazing.”

“Offensively, I feel like me being on the floor with the other great guys that we have, I just feel like it will just create ample opportunity for me to showcase whatever I can do.”

The good news: regardless of how high you think Horton-Tucker’s ceiling reaches, there’s little reason to doubt his commitment.

To border on hyperbole, the pace of Horton-Tucker’s learning curve since being drafted no. 46 overall out of Iowa State in 2019 has been staggering (the Lakers’ development pipeline deserves immense credit, too).

In 2019-20, he averaged 18.1 PPG for the South Bay Lakers. (He soon signed with Klutch Sports, which LeBron claimed he implored Rich Paul to consider when THT was in high school).

Months after that, he earned Vogel’s trust by holding his own in second-round playoff minutes in the bubble. After taking #NBATwitter by storm in the 2020-21 preseason, he was a mainstay in the rotation by January.

Horton-Tucker noticeably improved as the season progressed, especially with his play-making. The Lakers incessantly encouraged him to create in myriad ways off his penetration, and he made strides. He averaged nearly two more assists more after March 15 than before, including four double-digit dime efforts. The eye test revealed an increasingly confident hooper.

Westbrook’s presence — in terms of play-making and work ethic — should rub off on him, too.

“It’s always gonna be great to just try and come in and see who he is and see how he brings himself to work every day, that’s always gonna be great for me to just see that and be up close and personal around him to see how he is every day,” Horton-Tucker said about Russ.

Training camp is a month away, and roles, rotations, and responsibilities still need to be sorted out. Horton-Tucker — a rare known-yet-ascending quantity in the Los Angeles locker room — could end up as the starting shooting guard, Sixth Man (I like him at 66/1 for Most Improved Player of the Year and 100/1 for Sixth Man of the Year, FWIW), or crucial second-unit scorer.

Amongst the Lakers’ offseason additions are relatively interchangeable and financially expendable pieces. Not THT. Frankly, there’s a nonzero chance that Horton-Tucker emerges as Los Angeles’ fourth-best player this season. In fact, the best version of the 2021-22 Lakers is one in which he makes that leap.