Kyle Kuzma showcased a wide array of spin moves, hook shots and a surprisingly efficient 3-point stroke while winning the hearts of Lakers fans across the globe last season, and then went on to set multiple rookie records for the historic franchise en route to an All-Rookie First Team selection, fully establishing him as one the league’s most promising young scorers.
Kuzma’s second season has been tougher. 23 games into his sophomore campaign, Kuzma has been slapped with higher expectations while making fewer shots, and thus found himself back in the same place he was when he fell to the end of the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft — having to prove himself.
Although sporting a higher efficiency on all attempted 2-point field goals this season, Kuzma has seen drop offs nearly across the board compared to his rookie numbers, most notably in his sudden inability to can the 3-ball.
As worrisome as his 30.3 percent shooting on five 3-point attempts per game has been, it’s even more concerning when considering the types of quality looks he has gotten this year while playing alongside LeBron James.
According to the NBA’s tracking data, of Kuzma’s 122 attempts from three thus far, 113 of them have been classified as “open” or “wide open.” On his categorized “open” attempts (four-six feet from nearest defender) he is currently only 8-37 (21.6 percent) from the field.
But while Kuzma’s shooting taking a nosedive from the 36.6 percent of his threes he made during his rookie season obviously isn’t a good thing right now, his recent struggle to find the bottom of the net may turn out to be a pseudo blessing in disguise for the Lakers.
Like Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights,” Kuzma was in many regards not a basketball player (or thinker) during his rookie season, but simply a scorer (driver).
Now that he’s been faced with the inability to do what made him such a popular player among the team’s fanbase, Kuzma has needed to search out alternative methods to provide positive contributions on the floor, most notably through playmaking and defense.
To start his young career, Kuzma’s defense was the glaring weakness of his game.
Kuzma ranked 80th among 88 power forwards in ESPN’s defensive real-plus-minus a season ago, and was arguably even worse in the early segments of this season. He is currently sitting 90th of 91 eligible power forwards as of the metric’s last update.
With that said, the 23-year-old has been noticeably more engaged recently and it has led to steadily improved play on that end.
“I think the narrative is I just don’t play defense, but if you watch how the season progressed, I’ve been getting better and better every single game,” Kuzma said after the team’s recent blowout win against the Suns. “I just want to be a complete player, and all great players do it on both ends.”
Kuzma’s recent turnaround on defense has been almost directly tied to his return to checking wings or slighter forwards, as opposed to the bigs he was checking earlier this season, or the quicker guards he was sometimes forced onto in switch situations
With Tyson Chandler’s arrival to the team ending the ill-fated experiment of Kuzma playing small-ball center, Lakers head coach Luke Walton wisely changed course and has since sicced Kuzma on opposing perimeter players, which has garnered surprisingly encouraging results.
As his defense on players like Joe Ingles, Luka Doncic and most recently Josh Jackson has exemplified, Kuzma has been able to leverage his height and quick feet to trail and cut off attempted drives against opponents who are unable to exploit his weaknesses.
“He’s done a nice job on those type of players, we’re finding out. So it’s good for him to have a mission out there to focus on defensively,” Walton said. “We’re looking for matchups that we can use his size, strength and athleticism to give us an advantage, and he’s done a good job with that.”
The data thus far has also supported this.
On the season Kuzma is in the 90th percentile in the league defending the primary pick-and-roll ball-handler, yet when he has defended this same play type as the “big” (as McGee is in the first clip) he is in the 9th percentile, according to Synergy.
Such drastic variation in Kuzma’s effectiveness can possibly be credited to the Lakers having him play to his strengths, rather than his weaknesses, defensively.
“I’ve always kind of guarded perimeter guys,” Kuzma said, “I’m a little bit more comfortable guarding guys off of screens. It kind of keeps me engaged in the game and locking in, because if you fall asleep on a shooter, you know they’re going to come off that screen and hit.”
Kuzma has been very susceptible to getting blown by when defending in space or in drop coverage by point guards because of his shuffling feet, so having him trail wings off of screens — in which he ranks in the 93rd percentile in the league — has yielded positive results.
The other area Kuzma has recently been able to provide an impact outside of scoring has been through his passing.
Often not associated with having good feel or vision because of his trigger-happy shooting, Kuzma flashed genuinely impressive passes as a rookie to indicate untapped potential.
Averaging nearly four assists in his last five games, Kuzma has been vocal of late about the importance of getting his teammates involved on offense.
“I’ve just been making a bigger effort to look for my teammates,” Kuzma said. “It’s paying off. Just trying to have an all-around game more.”
Kuzma’s eagerness to move the ball has been apparent in the team’s recent stretch of solid play. He has done an especially solid job with his interior passing, often finding the team’s big men in the dunker spot and off of quick reads.
And despite his aforementioned shooting struggles, defenses are still closing out hard on Kuzma’s outside shot, and he still has retained a level of gravity on the floor which he has been able to exploit with his passing.
Walton has been especially pleased with Kuzma’s ability to make the extra pass, which for a large chunk of his rookie year, he often failed to concede.
“He’s been doing a much better job of making the extra pass,” Walton said. “Not every time – and I get on him every time he doesn’t make it – but he is doing a nice job, for the most part right now, of making the extra passes.”
Kuzma’s increased effort on defense, improving willingness to make the extra pass and even his uptick in rebounding (7.2 in his last five games) have all made a huge difference in Kuzma’s play of late, and have cloaked his early season struggles from deep.
His shot will likely regress to the mean given his talent and the level of openness he has been allotted playing off of James, but this sophomore rough patch possibly could have been exactly what Kuzma needed in the long run.
Scoring and putting up points will almost always be a way to make a name for oneself in the league. Yet, what ultimately separates an athlete from being a “good scorer” or a “good player” are exactly the types of things Kuzma is seemingly beginning to understand and do. That’s good news for the Lakers, and it will be even better news when Kuzma’s shot starts falling again.