September 25, 2022

LA VEGAS – In typical Las Vegas Summer League fashion, the biggest game played on Friday night did not take place on the floor of the Thomas and Mack Center, but next door.

After a long day between the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels’ air-conditioned basketball oasis and the 110-degree desert heat, the half-full crowd in the 18,000-seat arena began to tire. With seven games played between the two grounds at the facility and only one remaining, it looked like the plot of the evening had all but expired.

But as the clock ticked down to 7 p.m., a palpable change in mood occurred; a wave of purple and gold began to wash over the largely unaffiliated masses, gradually increasing attendance toward capacity and reinforcing a well-known NBA truism: Laker fans travel. Especially in Las Vegas.

And then LeBron James walked in.

Fairing in a hallway filled with the Lakers elite, LeBron sported a toothy smile as he blessed those among his basketball apostles – Kurt Rambis, Dave McMenamin, Phil Handy and Talen Horton-Tucker among others – with cordial greetings, varying in levels of familiarity.

LeBron’s presence functionally defibrillated a crowd looking for a reason to care about a mostly meaningless basketball game. His surprise cameo spawned a startled gasp, then an elated roar from the crowd of mostly Laker fans, followed by a night of outright taunts from fans wanting exchanges, photographs or simple eye recognition. .

The sideshow hosted by the game’s biggest star eclipsed the brilliance of the nominal main event.

For the rest of the evening, a steady stream of King acolytes came to pay their respects, with one notable exception: Russell Westbrook. And while the biggest story of the night may have been who LeBron didn’t sit with, a close second should be who he did for almost the entire second half.

Breaking away from his partner for most of the night, Lakers assistant Phil Handy, Talen Horton-Tucker dropped to the right of LeBron, joining fellow Supreme Klutch Kliientele and Kaptain Klutch himself in Rich Paul.

Most attention to the Lakers’ roster build this summer has focused on the potential retention or expulsion of Russell Westbrook, while Horton-Tucker’s name has been a regular afterthought in constructed trades. around the biggest name in the Lakers backcourt. . In the first season of a three-year, $30 million deal with a player option in his last, widely seen as an unnecessary overpayment, Talen Horton-Tucker looked mostly misinterpreted as a two-way spacer 3 and D and ill-equipped to play alongside ball stars.

At times, however, especially when given the opportunity to run the show, Horton-Tucker thrived, driving an effective offense for himself and his teammates while wreaking havoc at the other end thanks to his unusually large wingspan. long.

Although he once looked like the crown jewel of the Lakers’ remaining youth movement, given his underperformance – albeit in an uncomfortably fitting role – Horton-Tucker now finds himself outside the presumed inner circle of Lakers, awaiting potential news of an involuntary move to Brooklyn, Toronto or possibly San Antonio.

But last night, perhaps for the last time, he held prime real estate in the king’s court. The rest of the offseason will likely determine whether he remains a favorite prince or just a fringe jester.

Meanwhile, at half-time, Darvin Ham addressed reporters outside a makeshift press room in the tunnel under the stands. Asked by Michael Corvo of Clutch Points about Horton-Tucker – whom Ham had yet to mention once during his series of adoring soliloquies directed at the various Lakers players – Ham took the opportunity to praise that he hadn’t stacked on Talen yet:

“Multifaceted player, man, just a guy who can dribble, pass and shoot,” Ham said. “I’m excited to be able to coach him because he’s a guy you can move to different places, if you want to play big you can use him. He can initiate your offense. If you want to play small he can play the 4. He’s strong enough, he’s long enough to be able to get hits and get rebounds and saves defensively.

Although Horton-Tucker’s recent history of shooting the ball deep suggests he could struggle again without a clearly defined role on the ball, Ham seems keen to deploy the 21-year-old all over the floor in a variety of ways.

He did, however, allude to Horton-Tucker’s unfortunate tendency to fall behind NBA game speed and look overwhelmed, saying, “He’s a guy who just has to keep things going. simple. Play simple, defend simple and consistent.

However, he concluded by apologizing for his lack of public attention devoted to Horton-Tucker and demonstrated his “ability to connect with anyone”, as the League head coach put it. Lakers summer Jordan Ott in the postgame, slightly ribbing Corvo with a smile, accusing him of popping the question in exchange for a bribe from Talen himself, prompting a chorus of laughter in the body beat.

For the rest of the game, Horton-Tucker stayed by LeBron’s side until they all left for their extracurricular activities in Sin City.

With his future on the Lakers still in question β€” contrary to Ham’s protests to the contrary β€” Horton-Tucker’s public evening with the GOAT could be read in retrospect as a bittersweet goodbye. Or maybe if THT realizes his semi-star potential this season, it might as well have been an affirmation of his presence in LeBron, Klutch and the Lakers’ inner circle.

All the more likely since it was simply two colleagues – one of whom is professionally invested in the other’s ancestry – enjoying a sporting event together sitting backstage, but with the spotlights shone directly on them.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley β€” no, he’s not a Cowboys fan, too. You can hear it on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.