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The Whiteboard: Talen Horton-Tucker and other NBA preseason surprises

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The start of the NBA season is eight (!) days away and preseason is already rolling. The action has been sloppy at times and many star players either aren’t playing or aren’t playing meaningful minutes. But we’ve still seen some fun performances, a few of which might even be instructive for the season ahead.

Is Talen Horton-Tucker a rotation player?

The most eye-popping performance of the preseason so far was the Lakers’ Talen Horton-Tucker dropping 33 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals against the Clippers on Sunday night. He was 11-of-17 from the field and 4-of-5 from beyond the arc, two nights after he went for 19 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals in the Lakers’ first preseason game against the Clippers.

Horton-Tucker was perceived to be a good value addition by the Lakers when they traded a future second-round pick to acquire him from the Orlando Magic on draft night, after Orlando took him with the No. 46 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. But on a deep, veteran club with championship aspirations, Horton-Tucker only played 81 minutes as a rookie.

The opportunities he’s seeing — 34 field goal attempts and 79 minutes in two games — are mostly a product of the preseason environment, with neither LeBron James or Anthony Davis playing and both Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sitting out one of the two games. Horton-Tucker is still probably a deep rotation player at best this year, with Schroder, Caldwell-Pope, Wesley Matthews and Alex Caruso all ahead of him. And hitting 4-of-5 3s was impressive in his 33-point explosion, but he was 1-of-4 from beyond the arc in his first preseason game, 4-of-13 in his 81 rookie minutes and hit just 30.9 percent on more than 200 G League attempts.

Becoming a reliable outside shooter is the easiest path for Horton-Tucker to secure a spot in the rotation but if he earns an opportunity in the regular season, it will be because of his defense and secondary playmaking. He measures out at just 6-foot-4 but has a solid 235-pound frame and 7-foot-1 wingspan, giving him the length and bulk to defend players much bigger. And in his extensive G League experience, he averaged 2.3 steals plus blocks per 36 minutes. He’s a physical presence with some clearly defined skills and, if not this year, he should get a chance to play meaningful minutes for the Lakers at some point.

Harry Giles is balling out for the Trail Blazers

Zach Collins is reportedly on track to return from ankle surgery in January but he may find his minutes are gone by then. Harry Giles, who signed a one-year free-agent contract with the Blazers near the end of November, has been fantastic. Through two preseason games, he’s racked up 37 points, 27 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 blocks in 57 minutes, shooting 58.3 percent from the field. He’s been incredibly active, making smart reads in space and looking very dangerous as a screener in the pick-and-roll.

Admittedly, both of Giles’ preseason performances have come against the Sacramento Kings, the team that drafted him and he spent the past two seasons with, so motivated revenge is a variable worth considering. But the mobility and versatility that defined his hypothetical ceiling as a prospect look more and more tangible and he could be well-entrenched as Portland’s first big off the bench by the time Collins is healthy enough to get back on the court.

The Houston Rockets could be frisky even without James Harden

It’s uncertain if James Harden will ever play for the Rockets again but even if he doesn’t, Houston appears to be in decent shape. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are both returning from injuries that kept them off the court for months, and both have looked surprisingly sharp. Wall is still blazingly fast and hasn’t lost any of his skill as an off-the-dribble creator. Cousins has moved well, hit 5-of-8 from beyond the arc in two games and managed to block four shots in just 32 minutes. And the rest of the supporting shooters are doing what they’re supposed to — Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, Ben McLemore, Bruno Caboclo and Danuel House are 20-of-45 (44.4 percent) on 3-pointers so far. And Christian Wood hasn’t even played yet!

Houston is probably not a real contender without Harden or a trade deal that approximates his present value as much as possible (as opposed to a package built mostly around picks or raw young players). But, assuming everyone stays healthy, they’re probably still a solid playoff team in the Western Conference.

LaMelo Ball hits all your preconceived notions in his first game

Ball’s first preseason wasn’t really surprising, except in how closely it stuck to the laziest evaluations of him as a draft prospect. He had 4 assists, most of the stunning, how-the-heck-did-he-do-that variety. He also went 0-of-5 from the field (one of those was actually an attempted lob pass that hit the rim) and had 4 turnovers. He’s not going to shoot this badly every game and his defensive upside is eventually going to show up more and more. But he’s still going to be a high-variance young player, with incredible talent that allows him to take risks that won’t always work out.

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