The Talen Horton-Tucker experiment is trending up in a big way

Forced into a point-guard role for the first time with the Utah Jazz, he’s been inconsistent and turnover-prone, but he’s finding a rhythm of late, and in Saturday’s win vs. Charlotte, “He was spectacular.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) aUtah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) yells out to his teammates as the Utah Jazz take on the Portland Trail Blazers in NBA basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Is Talen Horton-Tucker a point guard?

That’s the question Utah Jazz coach Will Hardy is trying to find out.

For the moment, it doesn’t matter — the positional label is irrelevant so long as he continues playing like this.

On Saturday night in Charlotte, he came two rebounds short of the franchise’s first triple-double since 2008, racking up 37 points (on 14-for-24 shooting), 10 assists, and eight rebounds in a wire-to-wire victory over the Hornets.

Naturally, he was fairly blasé about it.

“Obviously I know I hit a lot of shots tonight, so just being able to stay consistent with that would be good,” Horton-Tucker said afterward. “[It’s just about] being able to get comfortable in this position — you know, starting — and just trying to make the most of it.”

After a rough start to the six-game road trip, he’s definitely looking comfortable and making the most of it. Saturday was his third straight game of at least 20 points, and he’s averaging 7.3 assists in those games as well.

The 35-year-old Hardy, after noting that 22-year-old Horton-Tucker has “a little bit of an old-soul vibe to him,” did some of the geeking out that his player wouldn’t.

“Very clearly the story of the game is Talen Horton-Tucker,” he said. “… I am incredibly hard on Talen, I have been all season; he knows that that is because I believe in him, in his talent, his ability. He’s still young — he just turned 22 — and he has some real physical gifts that were on display tonight.”

Not too shabby for a guy who was a “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decision” in four consecutive games in the lead-up to the trade deadline.

That, as much as anything, was always a matter of where he fit best, which has been an ongoing issue.

Though THT stands 6-foot-4, he never really played point guard during his first three seasons in the NBA, operating pretty exclusively as a wing while with the Lakers. But when the Jazz acquired him this past summer in exchange for Patrick Beverley, that changed — in fits and spurts, anyway.

Mike Conley was the starter back then. New acquisition Collin Sexton was the de facto backup, albeit in a hybrid combo-guard sort of role. Nickeil Alexander-Walker got some rotation minutes at the position here and there. Even lifelong gunner Jordan Clarkson found himself serving as the primary ball-handler at times. So it’s not like THT — who’s found himself slotted anywhere between the 1 and 4 spots this season — was being asked to become Steve Nash all of a sudden.

He is being counted on to run the show now, though.

Conley and NAW were dealt to the Wolves. Sexton tweaked his hamstring less than 4 minutes into the team’s game back on Feb. 15. Horton-Tucker became the point guard by default, and has been there ever since. Saturday’s game in Charlotte was his eighth consecutive start in that position.

Needless to say, there have been ups and downs.

“Obviously it’s a work in progress. He hasn’t really played the point position [before] — he’s more of a 2-guard or a big guard. But he’s so talented,” noted veteran center Kelly Olynyk. “He gets to the rim so easily, he gets by people, uses his body really well, he’s shot the ball well lately, which has been good. He makes big plays for us, athletic plays that other guys can’t make, just getting by guys, drawing contact, finishing, and then making shots. So he’s been big for us, especially with Collin out.”

To Olynyk’s first point, though, it hasn’t always been a natural, seamless transition.

As Horton-Tucker’s usage has gone up, so too have his miscues. In the eight-game stretch of starts since Sexton went out, THT turned the ball over four times in the first of three meetings vs. OKC; five times in Game 1 against the Spurs and then seven times the next game vs. San Antonio; he also had six turnovers in another matchup with the Thunder and then five more turnovers — all in the first half — against the Mavericks.

He’s turned the ball over 4.4 times per contest in this eight-game span.

And yet, he’s also improved his production, averaging 16.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, while making 12 of 32 tries from deep — a much-improved 37.5%.

“He’s been doing a lot of great things: Getting us into sets, making plays, making the spot-up trey — I’ve been telling him to shoot those!” Clarkson noted, before being sidelined himself with a finger sprain. “All in all, he’s made strides throughout the whole season, and he’s been really good for us recently. Now you’re kind of seeing his winning plays and what he brings to us.”

The up-and-down nature of his season notwithstanding, this has actually been Horton-Tucker’s most productive campaign per 36 minutes and 100 possessions.

By those metrics, he’s achieving career-highs in points (16.9/22.5), rebounds (4.6/7.2), and assists (6.2/8.3). The passing numbers, in particular, are far and away above what he’s ever done before.

Horton-Tucker has noted on multiple occasions that it was an adjustment being in the rotation one night and then out the next, and it’s been a further adjustment being in the opening lineup now. He’s trying to maintain some equilibrium about it all.

“Obviously, coming off the bench is a lot different from starting, so just being able to find some consistency, finding a rhythm with those guys and trying to get those guys going, like JC and Lauri [Markkanen], even Walker [Kessler] and KO,” he said. “So just being able to try and find some consistency with that, and take care of the ball.”

Hardy is liking what he’s seeing in terms of the guard’s approach.

On Saturday, he pointed out that, “It’s not a little thing how he’s approached this season — he has not always gotten what he wanted.”

Those moments when THT was out of the rotation, he didn’t complain, he just continued to work with the development group led by assistant coach Evan Bradds.

He’s continued to be patient, he’s continued to be competitive, he’s made it a point to try and keep his focus on what he can control.

It doesn’t always go perfectly.

Given his affinity for quick spins and explosive, contortionist leaps, he has a predilection for either accidentally working his way into double-teams or getting caught in the air with no viable outlet. While he has a fantastic ability to get downhill to the rim, he also has a maddening habit of settling for step-back 3s — often not a great option for a career 27.8% shooter beyond the arc.

Hardy is willing to live with some of those mistakes for the bigger picture of seeing Horton-Tucker find out what he can and can’t do.

“Talen’s a really aggressive player, and we need him to maintain that mindset. … I think the worst thing I could do would be to overly nitpick those moments and strip Talen with his aggressiveness. He needs to play with an aggressive mindset for us in order to be effective,” he said. “… You have to push the limits sometimes.”

Hardy has, in turn, tried to put the would-be point guard in positions where his reads are a little cleaner, while teaching him to use his unique frame — featuring 235 pounds and a 7-foot-2 wingspan — to better absorb contact and maintain control of the ball.

“He’s very prideful and he’s very hard on himself, so I don’t need to beat him up over mistakes or turnovers,” Hardy said. “… It’s hard to drive all the way to the rim and put pressure on the rim and make perfect decisions all the time; it’s all happening very fast.”

Even before this massive three-game stretch, the coach said he’s seen tremendous growth from THT since training camp.

The guard, once again, is opting to keep it simple and straightforward.

“I’m just trying to find some consistency and cut down on the turnovers, obviously,” he said.

On Saturday night, he did much, much more than that.

“He was spectacular,” Hardy said. “… Talen’s a hell of a basketball player.”