October 18, 2019, dawned the final preseason game for the Miami Heat of last year. Kendrick Nunn earned the starting nod alongside Justise Winslow, Duncan Robinson, Bam Adebayo, and Meyers Leonard. The Heat did battle with the Houston Rockets, who played Russell Westbrook and James Harden a combined 61 minutes, with The Beard netting 44 points in a 144-133 win.
Nunn, a 6-foot-2 undrafted combo guard, had only scored as many as 14 points in previous preseason games.
He finished with 40.
As an undrafted rookie, he posted historical numbers throughout his 2019-20 season. The Oakland University alum, by way of Illinois, used the 40-point game as a tone-setter for his third-place Rookie of the Year finish, following a season where he averaged 15.3 points per game while starting all 67 of his regular-season appearances. Though he wasn’t able to replicate his production in the playoffs, the All-Rookie First-Teamer did contract COVID, and may have still been reeling from the disease during the bubble. Still, he averaged 10.5 points on 47.1 percent shooting as an undrafted rookie in the NBA Finals.
Lakers swingman Talen Horton-Tucker (THT), who at 20 years old is five years younger than Nunn, demonstrated a similar outbreak over the weekend, exploding for 33 points, 10 rebounds, four steals, and four assists in a preseason win over the Clippers.
THT, the 46th overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, played only six NBA games in his true rookie season. Nunn actually went undrafted in 2018 and spent 2018-19 with the Golden State Warriors’ G League program, appearing in 49 games but only starting one. Still, Nunn dropped over 19 points per game on 47 percent shooting, prompting the Heat to sign him on the last day of the season and keep him in the safe until unleashing him in Summer League. The 6-foot-4, 234-pound Horton-Tucker won’t be a rookie this season because of his six NBA appearances, but he also arrives with extensive G League experience. One season ago, he started all 38 of his games with the South Bay Lakers, recording 18.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game.
Horton-Tucker also netted 19 points and eight rebounds in his very first preseason game, to which LeBron James hopped on his Twitter account and called him ‘special.’
We’ll wait and see what Horton-Tucker’s defense ultimately is, but with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he’s the longest NBA player of his stature. If he does thrive defensively, he already becomes more valuable than Kyle Kuzma, who is on the final year of his contract and is still lackluster on defense, with less offensive upside than THT, it seems. If this preseason outburst is of any significance, Horton-Tucker also elevates an improved Laker bench even further. He joins a backcourt headlined by Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and Wesley Matthews. Though they’re deep, there’s an obvious pathway for THT being irresistible to play and producing his way onto the Lakers’ plans, much like Nunn did in Miami one year ago, becoming a full-time starter.
Ultimately, it’s a fantastic issue to have. Head coach Frank Vogel said as much following THT’s 33-pointer.
“We have a very deep team. No minutes are guaranteed,” Vogel said. “He’s going to keep playing at a high level, and that should push everybody else to stay playing at a high level. It does give us that luxury of having him carry the load some for some of our guys who played deep in the championship run last year and had a short offseason.”
“I look at it as a blessing,” Horton-Tucker, added. “It’s actually crazy because I feel like what other 19, 20-year-old gets this experience in the world? Not too many. So just being able to take everything in and learn from it every day, seeing other superstars kind of notice it is actually pretty good.”
So, yes, while it’s only preseason for many, it may mean more for yet another contender with an embarrassment of weapons off their bench, who is also one trade away from widening the gap between themselves and everyone else out west.