Lakers' Biggest Early-Season SurprisesFebruary 4, 2021
Lakers' Biggest Early-Season Surprises
The Los Angeles Lakers seemingly had less to learn about themselves than every other NBA team coming into the 2020-21 season.
After all, they were the defending champs, and they were still following the lead of the top-shelf superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
But they had their own share of questions. How would they handle the quick turnaround? Was championship complacency at all a concern? Where would the newcomers fit?
L.A., like all other clubs, is in the phase of early-season self-discovery. These are the three biggest surprises it has uncovered.
LeBron James' 3-Point Touch
At this point, there's pretty concrete evidence that LeBron James isn't a mere mortal but rather an NBA cyborg built to take over the basketball world.
At worst, he's one of the two best players to ever hit the hardwood. That was on his resume long before this season started. And yet, he's still unlocking new layers of his game, because that's apparently a preferred pastime in what should by his twilight years.
Last season, he captured the first assists title of his career by handing out 10.2 helpers per night. This time around, he's pairing two personal-bests in the three-point department: 2.8 makes per game and a 40.9 percent success rate.
Remember when the right way to defend used to be forcing him to shoot? That's out the window.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel called James "probably the best shooter" on the team. That level of praise might've raised eyebrows in seasons past, but it's absolutely warranted right now.
The Alex Caruso Effect
Alex Caruso earned his rotation spot last season and quickly became a fan favorite for his energy and activity level. But for those outside of L.A., it was fair to wonder whether an otherwise anonymous role player was merely being propped up by the NBA spotlight.
Caruso is making that notion sound laughable. On a team featuring two all-galaxy stars and a host of established veterans, it's the plucky, head-band wearing point guard owning the rotation's best net differential at a staggering plus-15.0 points per 100 possessions.
"He's certainly one of our best players," Vogel told reporters. "That's the simplest way to put it. He typically moves the needle in a positive direction and you see that with plus-minus."
There's sometimes a lot of noise with that stat, but for Caruso, it feels legit. He's a tireless defender and versatile offensive contributor who can play on or off the ball. He might've been a fun curiosity before, but he's quickly becoming a key cog for the defending champs.
Talen Horton-Tucker's Impact
Talen Horton-Tucker turned 20 years old in November. New York Knicks rookie Obi Toppin, the eighth overall pick, will be 23 in March.
Horton-Tucker's age gets referenced a lot, but it's worth all of the mentions to provide context for his contributions. He's not even two years removed from being the 46th overall selection, and he's seeing almost nightly action for a team that took the last title and looks like the favorite to win the next.
He is poised beyond his years and far more skilled than his draft position would suggest. He has the bulk (234 pounds) to bang with small-ball bigs and the handles to initiate offense. He has a herky-jerk rhythm to his game that keeps defenders off balance, and at the other end his Stretch Armstrong arms create all kinds of headaches for unsuspecting ball-handlers.
His best basketball is probably years down the road, and he's not quite guaranteed minutes from one night to the next. But he's proving his preseason flashes weren't a fluke. The young guard can play, and the Lakers have given him more opportunities to do so than anyone could've imagined.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.