In many ways, Kyle Kuzma represents the new team identity for the Los Angeles Lakers. Standing at 6’9,” gleaming with confidence, and sporting an impressive and multi-faceted modern skill set, Kuzma exemplifies a Lakers’ roster suddenly full of versatile players with dynamic talents.
After producing on the offensive end at an eye-opening rate in his rookie season (Kuzma was the first rookie in NBA history to tally at least: 1,000 points, 400 rebounds, and 130 made three-pointers) Kuzma has hit the gym harder than ever this summer in hopes of not only duplicating his production levels — but exceeding them.
Mike Trudell of Lakers.com caught up with the 23-year-old and spoke at length on a variety of topics, among which included what areas of his game Kuzma has worked on this offseason:
“We’ve worked on a lot of perimeter skills and playing at the three. Last year I played the three and the four, and I’ll probably play (both) this year, but just to develop my game as a perimeter guy. Reading passes. My handling. Just working out as a guard really helps your overall game.”
Kuzma’s emphasis on working on playing at the three (or small forward) and improving his perimeter game are notable developments ahead of what should be a fierce training camp where playing time for the upcoming season is expected to be up for grabs.
With the obvious inclusion of LeBron James to the roster, and the array of veteran wings also joining him in the forms of Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and the returning Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma’s skills and ability to slide up or down in the lineup could help him carve out a significant chunk of minutes on a nightly basis.
Although his quote regarding playing the three was not conclusive of this being a team-oriented goal, or if simply Kuzma’s own skill work, it does fall in line with the front office’s vision for the roster.
The Lakers had opportunities in going after the typical “specialists” this offseason to surround James, yet instead chose to follow Magic Johnson's vision of everyone on the floor being “6’7” and above,” and be multi-skilled.
As a rookie, Kuzma showcased he fit in that archetype with his ability to space the floor, rebound well, possess good footwork, be elite in isolation, and fit the team’s run and gun offense perfectly, all while falling within Johnson’s 6’7” and above threshold.
Attempting to predict how Kuzma would fare in extended minutes at small forward this upcoming season is difficult given the contextual information needed, such as who he shares the floor with, and who the opposition is.
Yet, based off last season’s data, there is valid reason to tread cautiously.
According to Basketball Reference, Kuzma only spent an estimated 20 percent of his playing time at the three spot as rookie (79 percent at power forward). Of those minutes, the Lakers’ team as a whole performed notably worse.
In all lineups in which Kuzma played small forward, the Lakers posted a defensive rating of 111.1 and held a point differential of -5.2. In comparison, in the lineups in which Kuzma played power forward, the Lakers had a defensive rating of 108.4, with a point differential of -1.4, according to Cleaning the Glass.
While the numbers may not seem drastic, they are indicative of the defensive concerns that may appear with Kuzma in this role. Though he has the foot speed and nimbleness to check wings, he still has significant work left to do defensively off-ball in order to be relied upon to consistently cover the opposition.
Against fours, Kuzma will almost always have a quickness advantage, and has shown to be more comfortable banging against more traditional back to the basket opponents in the post. Against threes the former option would be slightly negated, while the latter might be more effective.
The reality is, no one knows exactly where Kuzma is going to play considering a report surfaced that the Lakers were considering using him at center. All we do know for sure is that the young man who has a Space Jam themed tattoo on his thigh that reads”Kuz’s Secret Stuff” will most likely be the first person to admit he has lofty goals for this season.
However, whatever role or position Kuzma is placed in this year, he will also be the first person to say and believe he can surpass his own high expectations. It will be fascinating to watch him try.
You can follow Alex on Twitter @AlexmRegla.