Jazz guards Sexton, Horton-Tucker ‘argue like brothers’ off the court and are making quicker decisions on it

What’s behind the recent play of guards Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker? Two of the Utah Jazz’s biggest question marks are starting to provide real answers

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) maneuvers past Brooklyn Nets guard Cam Thomas (24) and Brooklyn Nets center Day'Ron Sharpe (20) for a basket during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

There’s never really been any doubt about how much potential Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker have. It’s just whether they’re able to deliver on it.

On Monday night, in the Utah Jazz’s 125-108 win over the Nets, both guards delivered with aplomb.

As the starting backcourt with both Keyonte George and Jordan Clarkson injured, Sexton and Horton-Tucker had matching 27-point, six-assist, three-rebound contributions that paced the Jazz. Just as importantly — and in contrast to their play earlier in the season — both took care of the ball, with only three turnovers between the two of them.

It wasn’t only Monday night, though. Horton-Tucker has played relatively well in recent games; after shooting just 36% from the field and 29% from three in October and November, he’s up to 48% and 40% in those statistics in December. Sexton, meanwhile, has been a real highlight: He’s scored over 20 points in his last 5 games, including averaging 27 a night in his last four. They’re on terrific efficiency numbers, too.

So what have been the biggest difference makers for the pair? Here’s what they say it is, along with some points from head coach Will Hardy.

Sexton the shooting guard

Sexton stands at 6-foot-2 — NBA point guard size.

So that’s how the Cleveland Cavaliers used him during his first two years in the NBA, and how the Jazz used him after acquiring him in the Donovan Mitchell trade. But after two years in Cleveland and a little more than one with the Jazz, both teams moved him to the shooting guard position. The Cavaliers did it in part because of the arrival of Darius Garland, but the Jazz have no such All-Star point guard. Instead, the Jazz’s move of Sexton to shooting guard allows him to attack in more beneficial spots.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Collin Sexton (2) tries to get past Brooklyn Nets center Day'Ron Sharpe (20) during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

“Early in the game, obviously he’s off the ball. When Talen comes in, we still try to keep (Sexton) off the ball,” Hardy said. “He can put so much pressure on the defense one on one. We’re trying to do some things where he’s getting the ball on the second side of the action when the defense has loosened up some.”

In short, it simplifies Sexton’s task. Rather than running pick and roll and having to make a bunch of difficult decisions on the court, he’s getting the ball later. He can then just choose: attack, or not.

And because the defense is already shifting, the drives he does make are much more likely to result in fouls. Sexton got to the free-throw line a whopping 13 times on Monday night, making 12 of them. That’s the most any Jazz player has taken in a game this season.

The other nice thing about playing Sexton at the shooting guard is that he doesn’t feel like he should come back to get the ball when the Jazz get a rebound. Instead, he can just run, using his best physical attribute, his speed. In the past five games, he’s scored 31 points in transition. In his first five games, he scored 11.

Talen Horton-Tucker, a half-second faster

One thing I’ve always hoped to see from Horton-Tucker: a recognition of what he does better in his good games than in his poor ones.

In the past, when the media has asked Horton-Tucker about that difference, he’s given an almost stubborn answer: nothing. Sometimes the shots go in, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you turn the ball over five times, sometimes you don’t.

After Monday’s game, he talked about a change: “I’m just trying to make the decision a little bit faster — 0.5 seconds faster.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) makes a three point attempt during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.

That makes all the difference in the world. On Monday night, all six of his assists came from either the free-throw line area or the perimeter. The turnover came when he found himself stuck in the restricted area. That’s been a consistent trend in Horton-Tucker’s season. If he makes the decision around the elbow, he’s going to be great. If he waits one more step, or one more dribble, he might be swallowed up, lose the ball, and it’ll probably mean two points the other way.

The other great thing for Horton-Tucker on Monday: The Nets played multiple lineups without a rim protector on the floor, playing either Dorian Finney-Smith or Royce O’Neale at center. That allowed him the ability to finish inside and was key to his 27-point performance. Recognition of personnel on both ends of the floor will be key to building on the success.

Working better together

The minutes Horton-Tucker and Sexton have played together have not been good for the Jazz this season. They’re being outscored by 9.3 points per 100 possessions during that time this year, way worse than the team’s other looks.

Some of that, frankly, has been a clear lack of on-court chemistry between the two. Especially in the team’s first 10 games or so, Horton-Tucker and Sexton seemed to bicker about who was taking the ball up the court, where they should stand during plays, and who should get matched up on who. It didn’t seem productive.

This has improved, Hardy and Horton-Tucker say.

“I get a kick out of the dynamic between the two,” Hardy said. “I mean, they argue like brothers when they’re on the bench. It’s really funny. I come back to the timeouts frequently and hear them going back and forth in a spirited, healthy way about whatever’s going on on the court.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (5) as the Utah Jazz host the New York Knicks, NBA basketball on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023.

Horton-Tucker laughed when asked about it.

“It’s actually kind of funny, because everybody, like, my family and my teammates, they’re always thinking me and Collin are arguing. We’re never arguing,” Horton-Tucker said. “We’re both trying to help each other. If I see something that he did wrong, he sees something that I could help him with, he’s always going to come tell me.

“Collin’s whole makeup is, like, intense. You never know if he’s yelling or just having a regular conversation with you.”

I think a clearer differentiation between Horton-Tucker and Sexton’s roles on the court has helped those dynamics — or at least made it possible for the Jazz to run cohesive offense when they’re on the court. Perhaps the off-court conversations are helping, too.

To be sure, real questions remain. Playing Sexton as a shooting guard in a playoff series is going to be difficult, given his size defensively — in the same way it was for the All-Star Mitchell. Likewise, playing Horton-Tucker as a primary ball-handler is going to be difficult given just how good those guys are for playoff opposition.

But their improved play has stabilized the Jazz some, giving new hope to this season, and a better developmental environment around the Jazz overall.