It’s early in the season, but Kyle Kuzma is playing some of the best basketball of his career for the Los Angeles Lakers, particularly on the defensive end.
Through 10 games, Kuzma has posted a career-high defensive rating of 98.4, which isn’t just over a 10-point improvement from his defensive rating last season — it’s the third-highest defensive rating on the team, behind Alex Caruso (94.9) and Quinn Cook (97.9). Granted, it’s a small sample size and largely dependent on the lineups he’s playing with — most of which include one of Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard — but his fundamentals look stronger than they ever have, and Kuzma thinks there’s a reason for that.
Earlier this month, Kuzma alluded to the fact that San Antonio Spurs and USA Basketball Head Coach Gregg Popovich helped him improve on the defensive end during the brief time they spent together with Team USA this past summer. In a recent interview on “The Official Lakers Podcast” with Mike Trudell and Aaron Larsuel, Kuzma went into detail exactly how the 23-year veteran head coach helped with his defense:
“I think the biggest thing is that I’m just so much more aware defensively. Like being in spots, taking angles, just those little kind of nuances... I think, especially in the FIBA game, having a good defense is super important because the games are shorter, there are less possessions, so if there is a big lead it’s not like the NBA where you can just get it back in a quarter. Just really honing in on those defensive skills has really helped me this summer.”
Kuzma also said that having so many veterans on the Lakers’ own roster has helped his development on defense:
“Especially just being around them, just seeing them every day. Actually watching the defenders. It’s one thing to play on a team where I think most of the time we were a bad defensive team my first two years, and just seeing vets, how they carry themselves and really take that approach, it’s refreshing but it’s also very knowledgeable to watch.”
It’s not just the quantity of veterans on this year’s team, though — it’s the quality, too. The Lakers have six players on their roster that have made the All-Defensive First Team at least once in their career: Rajon Rondo, — who has been especially influential on Kuzma — Avery Bradley, Danny Green, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. Of those six players, two of them — Green and Davis — have made the All-Defensive First Team within the last three years.
Between Popovich, the team’s veterans and Frank Vogel, who’s a big reason the Lakers are one of the two best defensive teams in the NBA, it’s no surprise that Kuzma looks as good as he has defensively. Now, the hope is that he can keep it up for the rest of the season.