Los Angeles — Before the Los Angeles Lakers took on the Orlando Magic on Sunday, head coach Luke Walton waxed poetic about the defense Kyle Kuzma had played on Utah Jazz wing Joe Ingles the game before.
Walton called Kuzma’s effort “incredible” and made it clear he was blown away with the progress Kuzma had made defensively since the beginning of the season.
“We have really high expectations for Kuz, so we ask him to do a lot, and that goes from scoring, to playing defense, to rebounding, to guarding perimeter players and post players,” Walton said. “For a second-year player he’s got a lot of responsibility on his plate, but I think he’s doing a really nice job of handling it.”
After Walton’s remarks, Kuzma went out and immediately showed why the Lakers are so high not just on him, but on his adaptability and skill at adding things to his game.
In the first quarter against the Magic, Kuzma scored 13 points on 5-7 shooting in 12 minutes. More impressively, he also dished 4 assists in the frame — nearly triple his season average of 1.4 per game — demonstrating a verve for playmaking (even on simple dump-offs to open big men) that he hasn’t shown a lot of during his short NBA career so far.
Kuzma slowed down a bit after that, finishing with 21 points and 5 assists as the Lakers lost to the Magic, but his strong play made him a team-high +11 in box plus-minus in a four-point loss. While that stat isn’t a perfect way to measure which players had the biggest impact, it at least demonstrates that Kuzma made the Lakers better during his time on the floor.
“I was just trying to get back to my ways. Trying to be super aggressive. Attacking the rim, trying to find a rhythm that way instead of shooting jumpers,” Kuzma said.
The extra penetration Kuzma was getting not only helped him get in rhythm, but led to opportunities for him to get his teammates involved as well when the defense collapsed. One game doesn’t make a new trend, or mean a new Kuzma, but Walton sounds confident that Kuzma is the type of player that will make whatever changes necessary to his game in order to help his team win.
“Kuz wants to win,” Walton said. “He naturally is a scorer, and that’s what he enjoys doing most, but he’s all in for whatever it takes to win.
“It takes time, and he’s a month or whatever we are into his second season, and he’s made some really nice leaps in other parts of his game.”
Kuzma proved his coach’s talk of progress prescient against the Magic, and if he can keep proving his coach right, the Lakers will continue to have an awfully promising prospect on their hands.