It’s come in fits and starts, but we are now starting to see the promise showed by Lakers forward Talen Horton-Tucker in the preseason translate into the NBA regular season. On Sunday, Horton-Tucker had a career breakout game, scoring 17 points with five rebounds, three assists and four steals. He was 7-for-8 shooting from the field and 2-for-3 from the 3-point line.
That has earned some widespread praise for Horton-Tucker, who is just 20 years old and in his second season. But around the league, it means more teams could be preparing to make an offer for Horton-Tucker, who is a free agent this summer, wrapping up the second of a two-year deal he got from the Lakers after they acquired him as a second-round pick in the 2019 draft.
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Because he only signed for two years, Horton-Tucker can be retained by the Lakers using a quirky salary-cap exception known as “early Bird rights,” which give the Lakers some advantages when it comes to keeping Horton-Tucker. Those advantages are limited, though, if a team wants to go all-in on Horton-Tucker’s potential.
League sources told Heavy.com Horton-Tucker can expect “multiple teams” to have an interest in pursuing him this summer. That would put pressure on the Lakers to match some offers that could, potentially, be very hefty. The Knicks, Cavaliers and Mavericks were listed as teams with potential interest.
“The way the rules are, I don’t see the Lakers letting him go,” one general manager told Heavy.com. “But teams can make this a more difficult decision for the Lakers than they’d like. Teams that have a lot of cap space and are looking to gamble on a young guy, why not put your money into him? The upside is obvious.”
Horton-Tucker Will Come Under the ‘Gilbert Arenas Rule’
The problem for most teams, though, is that under what is known as the “Gilbert Arenas rule,” the Lakers will be in position to give Horton-Tucker a bigger deal, starting around $10.5 million. Opposing teams, though, will be limited by the mid-level exception which, if it comes in at about what it was this year, will be a bit more than $9 million. Advantage, Lakers.
But there is a quirk in the rules that allows for a third-year balloon payment worth as much as the maximum salary, with a raise in the fourth year. So a team could potentially pay Horton-Tucker $9 million in the first year, $10 million in the second year, then jump to more than $30 million in the third year and about $32 million in the fourth year.
That is four years and $80 million for Tucker.
If a team makes that offer for THT, the Lakers would still be in position to match the deal. Problem is, they would be committed to paying Horton-Tucker a max salary in 2023-24 and 2024-25.
Houston did that in the summer of 2012 by signing on second-round picks Jeremy Lin of the Knicks and Omer Asik of the Bulls with balloon-payment deals. Neither New York nor Chicago were willing to match the contracts—and, it should be noted, both deals were gambles that eventually went bad for the Rockets.
NBA salary cap expert Eric Pincus broke down THT and the Arenas rule in more detail here:
LeBron James on Horton-Tucker: ‘He’s a Sponge’
As it stands, the Lakers are obviously very high on Horton-Tucker’s potential. Teammates raved about him even last summer in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, when he would star in practices though he got little playing time. He became a preseason legend, though, when he averaged 20.5 points in four games in December.
Now, he is showing what he can do and he is beginning to make shots with more consistency. In a very small three-game sample size, Horton-Tucker has averaged 12.0 points and 63.6% shooting from the field which, given his ability to be a lockdown defender, makes him a dangerous two-way guy.
He got high praise from LeBron James on Sunday:
He just listens, he’s a sponge. Whatever you say to him, he’s going to apply it. He’s going to accept it first, then he’s going to apply it right away. There’s not that many young guys that can take something on the fly and then make it happen the very next play.
You saw it tonight with his ability, obviously, to go 7-of-8 from the field, but it’s also his rebounding, his assists, his playmaking, and then having four assists to add on top of that. It was a big-time game for him. For a kid that’s still growing into his own, but he’s beyond his years.
He is also due for a raise—and at this rate, the Lakers should be prepared to pony up if they intend to keep him.