One benefit for the Los Angeles Lakers playing a long stretch of games without superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis has been the development of complementary players taking on larger roles.
Talen Horton-Tucker fits that description.
The 20-year-old has been inserted into the starting lineup at times over the past month, growing in his role as a facilitator, scorer and defender as the Lakers look to the young, dynamic playmaker to shoulder more of the scoring load on offense.
Over the last five games, Horton-Tucker is averaging 13.2 points, six assists and three rebounds a contest.
“It’s a blessing for me to be in this opportunity,” Horton-Tucker said. “But I feel like it’s something that I want. So just being able to get there early in my career and have that opportunity, I’m grateful for it.”
Horton-Tucker also received another learning lesson on his team’s seven-game road trip, getting suspended for one game by the NBA for leaving the sideline during an altercation between Dennis Schröder and OG Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors.
Horton-Tucker had to sit out L.A.’s loss at Miami.
“I feel like the way that impacted my play is it held me off the court,” Horton-Tucker said about the suspension. “You hold me off the court, I get excited to play basketball again. I feel like it was a lesson learned, and it’s something I fee like I had to go through early in my career.”
The Lakers will need Horton-Tucker and the rest of the team at its best when the face the top seed in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz, at the Staples Center on Saturday in the first of back-to-back home games.
The first contest this season against Utah did not go so well for the Lakers, as they were blitzed by the Jazz 114-89 on February 24 in Salt Lake City.
Los Angeles will likely be without James and Davis again. Out since March 20 due to right, high-ankle sprain, the Lakers are 6-9 without James in the lineup.
Davis has missed 28 games in a row due to a right calf strain. However, Davis has been cleared for full-contact practice and the Lakers are hopeful he can rejoin the starting lineup before the end of the month, with James returning soon after.
Marc Gasol (broken left pinkie finger) and Markieff Morris (left ankle sprain) are listed as questionable for Saturday’s game against Utah.
“If we can hang on and win some games along the way, there’s going to be huge benefits from both the guys that are playing right now, in terms of getting comfortable running our system and defensive schemes,” Lakers head coach Frank Vogel said. “All those minutes lead to stronger instincts. Defensive coverages and offensive spacing concepts, running sets and how we can be creative getting them the ball.
“All of those things are going to benefit those guys. And then obviously if LeBron and AD (Davis) are able to come back healthy, with this sort of midseason rest due to the injury, I think that could benefit us going into the playoffs as well. We just have to win some games.”
The Jazz overcame a double-digit deficit to defeat the Indiana Packers at home on Friday 119-111, improving their league-best home record to 26-3.
However, since March the Jazz are 4-6 on the road. And they have not won at Staples Center against the Lakers since 2018.
Utah will be without Donavan Mitchell. The All-Star guard suffered a right ankle sprain in the third quarter and had to be helped to the locker room. X-rays came back negative for Mitchell, who did not return to the game against the Pacers.
Mitchell is expected to miss several games due to the injury.