Former Utah Jazz head coach and NBA treasure Frank Layden once frustratedly asked a player, “Son, what is it with you? Ignorance or apathy?” Without a hint of irony, the player deadpanned, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Kyle Kuzma’s rookie season featured a lot of “I don’t know, and I don’t care” on the defensive end, as he was content to make his mark as a scorer without a passing interest in getting stops.
At least he has some self-awareness.
Kuzma spent much of the preseason saying the right things and sending Luke Walton late night, “u up?” text messages to seek guidance while watching game film of his defensive performances. The tape of the first 10 games supports the notion that Kuzma isn’t just paying lip service to the idea that the defensive end of the court matters a lot more to him this season — he is trying — he just doesn’t know what he’s doing yet, and that’s compounded by his physical limitations.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those issues.
Kuzma’s happy feet and propensity to take poor recovery angles at the point of attack nullify his best intentions as a perimeter defender. These are relatively simple fixes with film work and proper attention to detail in skill development settings, but it will take patience to undo a lifetime of habits even under the best circumstances.
Kuzma is built like a wing, and his lack of size and strength make him just a mild inconvenience when opponents attack the rack. There isn’t much that he can do about that, and Luke Walton’s experimentation with Kuzma as a small-ball center has made that weakness more pronounced. Walton is already going to that lineup less often, and Tyson Chandler’s arrival is likely to continue that trend.
Kyle Kuzma’s apathy is mostly gone — which is an essential first step — but the fact that he’s still this bad on defense even with improved effort demonstrates just how much he has to learn. The Lakers have designs on playing deep into May and June within the next couple of seasons, and for as talented of a scorer as Kyle Kuzma is, he needs to make significant progress on defense if he wants to be on the court in an environment where every weakness is hunted and exploited.
Right now he’s not ready. The Lakers will need him to be.