Whether you choose to love or hate him, it’s difficult to to argue with Kyle Kuzma’s ability to adapt. It’s a skill that has not only allowed him to play a key role on the Lakers as they run to the league’s best record, but also helped him survive their drastic makeover this past summer.
Kuzma’s first two seasons in the league could not have been any more different. From an unheralded 27th overall pick shooting his way to an all-rookie first team selection, to then being tasked with filling in as one of LeBron James’ primary running mates (which he arguably did better than any of his previous young teammates), Kuzma has seen both sides of the league’s spectrum firsthand.
Now in his third season, Kuzma has been challenged with playing catch up. After a foot injury sidelined the forward through Lakers’ training camp and the team’s first few games, the 24-year-old has slowly worked his way back into the rotation and make strides in meshing with his two star teammates.
While currently posting the lowest usage rate (19.1%) and average second per touch (1.92) of his career, Kuzma’s continued acceptance in altering his game as an off-ball threat has managed to still make him an effective plug-and-play option beside two dominant stars, a big reason why James simply loves to pass him the ball.
After slinging out more assists to Kuzma than any other Laker last season, James has already dished out 24 more helpers to him this year. That’s the third-highest James has assisted anyone on the team, despite the fact that Kuzma missed out on a handful of extra games together due to his aforementioned injury.
Although Kuzma’s approach to the offensive-end seems like a concentrated attempt to optimize his and James’ strengths alike, according to him, it is not something that should stop when the former MVP goes to the bench.
“Just kind of the same thing as when he’s on the court,” Kuzma told reporters recently when asked what his mindset on the floor is in his minutes playing without James. “Cutting, running, shooting open shots, trying to play-make. Just doing things like that and making the extra pass. It’s not a one-man team, we’ve all got to do it collectively.”
So far, Kuzma has been a man of his word. While individually sporting a better true-shooting percentage with James on the floor vs. off, the Michigan native has relied on his teammates more now than ever before.
According to Cleaning the Glass, a whopping 84% of Kuzma’s makes this season have been assisted on. That’s up from his 70% posting last season, and 65% as a rookie. Essentially, Kuzma has continued to defer the on-ball razzle-dazzle that is traditionally associated with the league’s best scorers, and instead seamlessly shifted into a role that allows his teammates to create for him.
This was not an immediately easy transition, however. When Kuzma first returned from injury, he noticeably pressed in his sixth man role whenever the ball swung his way. He looked very much like a player doing his best Lou Williams impression instead of playing to his strengths, which he fortunately has changed recently in conjunction with a strong stretch.
While the Lakers could stand to benefit from any playmaking chops Kuzma could eventually provide — and any continued uptick in his perimeter shooting (he went 4-4 from three against New Orleans) — the role in which Kuzma is currently occupying is one that many would envision from an ideal tertiary option.
Like most young players, Kuzma still has plenty of warts. But on a team that is playing this well, and has two stars this good, he is being allowed the time and reps to work through them.
Such patience will have an expiration date as the season picks up. And when the playoffs arrive, Kuzma will once again be forced to adapt. Not only to the physicality and raised intensity, but to the pressure.
As of now, though, there is little reason to worry. So far, Kuzma has morphed into whatever the team and situation has asked for. Whether or not he can continue to display such adaptability may ultimately decide whether the Lakers’ championship aspirations this season will be realized. Luckily for the team, he’s off to a good start in that respect.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.