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Most Interesting Lakers No. 4: Kyle Kuzma has a chance to prove he’s not a one-hit wonder

Kyle Kuzma had a surprisingly successful rookie season with the Lakers, but he is setting his sights much higher in year 2.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: The Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season (The 15 guaranteed contracts plus the two guys on two-way contracts). We continue today with No. 4, Kyle Kuzma, and will be counting down to the Laker we think is most interesting with a new piece each weekday until we hit No. 1.

In the recent era of the much-ballyhooed Los Angeles Lakers scouting department, it’s interesting to consider that none of team’s lottery picks since 2014 have made the All-Rookie first team. Whether due to injury, or ineffectiveness, or paternal nonsense, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball all had what would be deemed underwhelming rookie years by the majority of awards voters.

The real diamonds of the Lakers’ draft record have come later in the draft, including Larry Nance, Jr., who ended up fetching the pick that became Moe Wagner in a trade last year, and the only two Lakers All-Rookie first team selections: Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Kuzma.

Clarkson was a wonderful second-round success story. He seized the opportunity afforded to him by injuries up and down the roster in his first season, and showcased that he had real NBA skills undetected earlier in the draft process. Kuzma similarly demonstrated uncommon footwork and a knack for scoring that vaulted him towards the top of an already highly-decorated rookie class.

But it’s here where Lakers fans hope the comparisons end. Because while Clarkson’s debut season was the highlight — thus far — of his career, Los Angeles has much higher hopes for Kyle Kuzma, which is why he comes in so highly on our list. Even though Kuzma isn’t projected to be in the starting lineup, his trajectory this season could go a long way in determining how successful the Lakers can be in the Western Conference.

Kuzma got off to a hot start last year, all the way back during the 2017 edition of Las Vegas Summer League, when he surprised most fans with his prolific long-range shooting and instant chemistry with fellow rookie Lonzo Ball. With Ball unable to play in the final, Kuzma won MVP honors in the championship game, dropping 30 points, including six threes to deliver the title for the Lakers.

He continued that hot shooting through the start of the season, winning Western Conference Rookie of the Month for October/November. Even as the Lakers struggled in December, Kuzma had some of his finest offensive performances of the year, including 38 points in a shocking road win over the Houston Rockets, and 25 and 27 points in a pair of close losses to the Golden State Warriors. All the while, Kuzma continued to dazzle with unexpected baby hooks and 39 percent shooting from three in the calendar year, a notable jump from the 30 percent 3-point shooting he managed in his college career at Utah.

That is the Kyle Kuzma that would justify Sixth Man of the Year consideration on a playoff team. A competent ball-handler capable of supplying efficient scoring and outside shooting on the second unit, and a scorer whose offensive heat map is a Moreyball dream: That player deserves minutes in a postseason rotation.

But, of course, that doesn’t paint the complete picture with Kuzma. When his jumper failed, like it did in January and February, Kuzma wasn’t exactly disciplined with his shot selection. As his true shooting percentage decreased, his usage increased. And then there’s defense, where the rookie performed as you would expect a rookie to, with a 109 defensive rating (per Cleaning the Glass).

Kuzma’s physical tools suggest he should improve as a defender, and his footwork on offense indicates that he’s capable of moving his feet nimbly on that end. There are indications that he is already making a leap, and after the All-Star break, Kuzma had a positive net rating. (What’s remarkable is that Kuzma graded as a plus player even though he played many minutes out of position on the wing in the final stretch of the year. When the Lakers attempted to pair him with two bigs last season, those lineups were disastrous.)

If the sophomore forward continues to build on his progress from the end of last year, he’ll find as many minutes as he can handle at backup power forward, where the Lakers only have LeBron James and Michael Beasley.

For all the playmakers the Lakers have, they need some finishers too. With his superlative scoring ability, the opportunity to be a contributor — even in limited minutes — is there for the taking, and Kuzma has stated that he’s not afraid of the pressure that comes from playing with James.

Kuzma has already won the hearts of many in Los Angeles. He’s a Summer League hero, an A-plus troll of his teammates, a charitable presence in his hometown, and has strong work ethic to boot. He’s earned the love of the national media, making appearances on The Jump and Inside the NBA. Even Lakers owner Jeanie Buss (never a bad person for a player to have in their corner) has touted Kuzma’s star quality.

This year, Kuzma has a chance to endear himself to the Laker faithful like very few before him — probably not an All-Star, but a hard-working role player who plays his part, maybe even closes some games when the situation presents itself. Call it a Lamar Odom for the next generation.

Kuzma burst on the scene out of nowhere last season. He won’t have that luxury this year, and whether his response draws Clarkson comparisons or proves he’s not fool’s gold will be one of the most fascinating Lakers storylines heading into October.

You can follow Sabreena on Twitter at @sabreenajm.

The countdown so far:

4. Kyle Kuzma

5. Rajon Rondo

6. Josh Hart

7. Ivica Zubac

8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

9. Moe Wagner

10. Michael Beasley

11. Svi Mykhailiuk

12. JaVale McGee

13. Isaac Bonga

14. Lance Stephenson

15. Luol Deng

16. Alex Caruso

17. Travis Wear

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