Earlier this season, when the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t have a clear-cut option at the backup center position, head coach Luke Walton experimented with Kyle Kuzma at the 5.
Despite showing an eagerness to learn how to play center, Kuzma struggled to hold his own against opposing bigs and was moved back to power forward full-time as soon as the Lakers signed Tyson Chandler — something president of basketball operations Magic Johnson has cited as one of the positives of adding Chandler.
Since moving back to his natural position, Kuzma told reporters on Spectrum SportsNet after the Lakers beat the Heat that he feels like he’s playing with an increased level of comfort:
“Just being aggressive how I always am,” Kuzma said of the reason for his success. “Some nights shots are going to fall, some nights they’re not, so it’s all about being consistent, which I try to be.
“I’m just playing my natural position, I’m just really comfortable with that. I played all last year as a four and having that mismatch with guys that are a little bit slower than me, but I’m also just as strong as, really helps my game out.”
In the six games Kuzma has played alongside Chandler, he’s seen a nice spike in his shooting percentages. With Chandler on the court, Kuzma is shooting 69.2 percent from the restricted area and 57.1 percent without him, according to NBA.com. He’s also making 42.9 percent of his above the break 3s with Chandler on the floor, compared to 23.1 percent without him.
However, while Kuzma has looked better offensively since sliding back to the power forward position, he’s still having trouble making any sort of impact defensively.
According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, only two players in the league are worse than Kuzma defensively at power forward: Jabari Parker and Marvin Bagley III. Overall, he’s ranked No. 413 out of 430 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. In other words, he’s been really, really bad on that end.
There are players just as bad or worse than Kuzma defensively this year that are All-Star NBA players — like Klay Thompson, who is ranked No. 416 overall in DRPM — but Kuzma’s offense isn’t elite enough for his defense not to be a glaring issue.
Thompson’s defense is also more likely to stabilize as the season goes on. Kuzma’s issues with defense have been consistent through his young career.
If Kuzma can improve on the defensive end, he’s easily a top-three player on the Lakers’ roster, and arguably the best player of their young core. Until then, he’s probably best suited as a spark plug off the bench. But either way, he should definitely not play center anymore.
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