"I play with a chip on my shoulder and I feel like I've got to go out and prove something every night. That's my expectation." Those are the words of Kyle Kuzma, the 27th overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, within a media scrum after an impressive Summer League performance last July. Flash-forward to now, nearly halfway through his first season of professional basketball, and Kuzma continues to be a revelation to nearly everyone’s surprise, except him.
When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for the rights for the 27th selection there arose questions on who the team would target, especially after drafting Lonzo Ball second-overall, and a roster filled with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle. When the time came, Adam Silver reached the podium and called the 6”9 Junior from the University of Utah, leaving many skeptics questioning the selection with the Lakers’ frontcourt logjam and their lack of perimeter shooting.
The pre-draft analysis of Kuzma heading into draft night praised his vision, handle, and quick feet from the forward position. But the consensus on the aspect of his game that would “unlock” his ultimate potential, would be his shooting ability, as eloquated in his initial DraftExpress profile:
“While his form is clean and he has shown potential from NBA range, he still just a career 30% shooter from deep and his inconsistency shows at times, with some very erratic misses. He's also just a 63% career free throw shooter, which is also a bit of a red flag. The fact that he has touch and a clean looking release make it realistic that with more repetition he should be able to stretch his shot to NBA range, but that hasn't happened quite yet.”
It is difficult to fathom shooting being a critique for Kuzma present day as it has been arguably his best attribute, but in his three-year collegiate career, it simply did not project to be an area of strength. This is mostly because he simply did not do it often enough.
In what could be chalked up to it not being a component of the Utah system in which he played within, Kuzma averaged under two attempts from three-point range per game in his career as a Ute. Scheme may have been the overriding factor in his small number of attempts, but it also seemingly coincides with the fact he simply did not shoot it efficiently.
As a career 30 percent shooter from deep, and shooting only 25 percent as a sophomore, Kuzma seemed to lack the consistency needed to find the confidence and rhythm in his stroke. The attempts did peak with just under three a game in his last season, which may have sparked his confidence through repetition with the more frequent usage. He possibly has always had the three-ball within him, and only needed ample opportunity and the green light to let it fly, which he so far has as a Laker.
Kuzma has not been shy about letting it fly as a rookie, averaging a little over five attempts from downtown per game, and is sinking them at an above average 38 percent clip. His 172 total taken threes this season so far have already eclipsed the entirety of his 169 attempts in College.
The gung-ho volume of his shots from the perimeter when compared to the rest of the NBA ranks him 37th in the league in total attempts, and his percentage when qualified among the NBA’s volume shooters ties him for 22nd best with Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry.
When looking at Kuzma’s complete shooting splits, he is among fantastic company this season. Of the NBA players who are currently shooting at least 45 percent from the field, 38 percent from three-point range, and with at least 150 attempts from that location, his field goal percentage ranks him sixth:
As good as he has been as an NBA shooter thus far, he has been even better when compared to the rest of his draft-class. He is among only three rookies to have attempted at least 170 attempts from outside so far, and comfortably tops the list with the next closest being Utah Jazz’s prized rookie Donovan Mitchell’s 35 percent.
Kuzma’s impressive shooting and scoring output as a rookie has been truly remarkable considering where he was taken in the draft, and with the little to no expectation of him being this good, this early. His immediate success may be due to his age when compared to the rest of his draft-class. At 22, Kuzma is on the older side of NBA rookies, and is already two years older than his teammate Brandon Ingram, who is in his second year in the NBA. This extra seasoning time in college possibly prepared him better for the professional ranks and enabled him to produce more quickly than the usual prospect.
Kyle is not exempt to the expected growing pains that come with being new to the NBA, even if he’s older than most of his fellow rookies. He has recently been asked to carry a heavier load for the Lakers with the recent string of injuries, in the midst a difficult road trip, all while nursing a quad contusion. Kuzma, who currently leads the team in scoring, has averaged 38 minutes per game in the team’s last five contests and has suddenly dipped in efficiency. In what might be concluded as him hitting the dreaded “rookie wall,” it could be more appropriately be summed up of as a series of unfortunate team events.
The Lakers have been without with Brook Lopez, Ball, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (when the team plays outside of California), leading to a string of rotation changes, and a recent team meeting where they were allowed to vent their frustrations on their recent losing streak. The downward stretch for the team has also been made more apparent with the cloud of Summer ‘18 on the horizon, leaving many players on the team unsure of their future roles on the team.
Kuzma, who has been one of the most consistent players otherwise, has struggled mightily in the last two games, seemingly having fatigue catch up to him. He is currently only two for his last 18 from three, and is shooting only 36 percent from the field in his last five games. When asked if fatigue had finally begun to set in with the rookie, Kuzma dismissed it as an excuse for his poor play,
“Basketball is basketball. Shots just didn’t fall tonight. Usually they do. As a professional, I feel like you’re going to have those nights,” he said.
The 22 year-old professional may indeed be reaching the point every young player usually does during their transition to the NBA, but he has yet to admit it. Kuzma’s not making an excuse for his, or his team’s, play this season despite the obvious several variables surrounding the team.
Maybe the “chip” on his shoulder with the 20-something teams passing on him on draft night does not allow him to do so, or maybe, it is simply because he “expects” to win every night regardless of who is on the floor. So whether he makes, or misses his next ten shots, expect Kuzma to believe every one of them is going in.