Talen Horton-Tucker looking to elevate his standing with the Utah Jazz

The 21-year-old guard got off to a rough start in his first season with the Jazz, but a breakout performance against the Rockets on Wednesday could be a springboard to better times.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) dunks the ball over Houston Rockets forward Tari Eason (17), in NBA action between the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets, at Vivint Arena, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022.

As Talen Horton-Tucker sat in the Utah Jazz locker room Wednesday night, soaking both feet in a bucket of ice, Mike Conley ambled over, sat down next to him, gave him a light backhand tap on the shoulder, and pronounced an enthusiastic, “Nice job, man!”

And it was.

The 21-year-old reserve guard acquired for Patrick Beverley had been pretty up-and-down through the team’s first four games of the season, but in the fifth, against the Houston Rockets — with Conley relegated to the bench for extended stretches due to the foul trouble that seemed to plague about half the players in the game, and Collin Sexton unavailable after halftime due to a left oblique contusion — Horton-Tucker got some extended on-court time.

He made the most of it.

Two nights after Simone Fontecchio came out of nowhere to deliver a big game in Houston, this time it was Horton-Tucker who got rolling against the Rockets. In 28 minutes, 12 seconds of action, he scored 14 points on 5-for-11 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, got two steals, and had four assists against zero turnovers.

And the Jazz improved to 4-1 on the season with a 109-101 victory.

“Obviously we want Mike on the floor at times, but of course when opportunity presents itself, I’ll always be ready,” Horton-Tucker said afterward.

That hasn’t always translated into effective play, though.

Through those first four games, it’s fair to say the 6-foot-4 guard had more than his share of maddening moments.

While impressing with an uncanny ability to get into the lane, he too often settled for tough turnaround fadeaways, or opted for high-difficulty, low-percentage acrobatic layup attempts, rather than keeping his eyes out for an open teammate. He took way too many quick-trigger shots in the deep midrange, and was also somehow managing to convert a career-low percentage from beyond the arc, as though he was still channeling his old club, the shooting-deficient Lakers.

Which isn’t to say he was an absolute negative on the court, but neither was he making all that compelling a case for being part of the team’s long-term future.

So everyone on the team was happy to see him have a breakout performance.

“The game kind of threw us for a loop a little bit with Mike being in foul trouble and Collin getting tweaked in the first half, so I’m really proud of Talen,” Hardy said.

He specifically cited the guard’s contributions to the team’s rebounding efforts (especially in smaller lineups), playing in control once he got into the lane, and remaining composed throughout, even as he was in the team’s closing five-man group (alongside Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, and Lauri Markkanen).

Horton-Tucker, meanwhile, noted that his own confidence went up after he drained two of his first three tries from 3-point range (never mind that he would go 0-for-4 beyond the arc thereafter). He certainly was confident throwing down a thunderous dunk upon Rockets rookie Tari Eason.

Somewhat counterintuitively, a player often criticized for not being judicious enough with his shot selection said he came away from the game in Houston on Monday resolved to be more aggressive in the rematch on Wednesday.

“It was a few shots that I passed up in Houston that coaches and all the players were telling me to shoot. So it’s trying to get out of the phase where I’m being a little bit timid and everything like that,” he said. “Just being able to attack and be aggressive is always going to be good for me.”

Horton-Tucker claiming to have ever been “timid” offensively would seem an audacious statement, but …

Well, he is quite the confident player, as his customary style of would indicate.

“Basketball comes naturally to me, period,” he said. “I’m not saying it [self-importantly] or anything, but I feel like I do a lot of different things, and bring the energy and aggressiveness that we need at times.”

Still, it didn’t hurt Wednesday knowing that he had something of a longer leash, owing to the circumstances.

Then again, he said that Hardy has been fantastic about giving his players plenty of leeway to play through mistakes without fear of being immediately summoned back to the bench following each miscue.

“For any player in the NBA, that’s amazing. Coach, he sat us down and talked to us and was saying he’s not going to overanalyze anything that we do,” Horton-Tucker said. “So when a coach gives you freedom like that, and that type of push, I feel like it does wonders for an NBA player’s career.”

Horton-Tucker, meanwhile, is taking additional steps to bolster his career himself.

A substantial part of that will be committing to making a bigger impact on the defensive end, he acknowledged.

For what it’s worth, he feels like he’s “progressing slowly but surely pretty good” on that end, putting an extra emphasis on both recovering to his man and on using his prodigious wingspan to be more disruptive in passing lanes.

As for his general place within Hardy’s world — well, like pretty much everyone else, he recognizes that it remains a work in progress.

“I’m really not sure yet. … We really haven’t seen exactly where I fit,” he said. “But I just try to show the coaching staff that I can play with any group and just be able to be versatile.”

And regardless of how the critics feel about his ability to positively impact the team, he has definite fans within the confines of Zions Bank Basketball Campus and Vivint Arena.

“He’s a hooper. He’s a really good player and obviously he’s getting more and more comfortable, and I’m glad he got some more run in,” Markkanen said postgame Wednesday. “We’re obviously going to need him moving forward. He’s obviously ready to play, ready to come in when his number is called. So he got a little bit more time in and I’m happy for him.”