Kyle Kuzma’s third season didn’t exactly get off to a roaring start. An injury suffered with USA Basketball held him out of training camp and the first four games of the Lakers’ season, all while the hype train surrounding him veered a little out of control.
Kuzma was forced into his first live action after only completing a full practice with the South Bay Lakers, and he looked exactly like a player who hadn’t played real basketball since March during first two games. Collectively, he shot 5-of-15 from the field, including 1-of-8 on threes, while offering little in the playmaking category. He defended well, presumably buoyed by playing alongside Anthony Davis or Dwight Howard, but Kuzma didn’t appear to be the magical solution to the Lakers’ offensive struggles.
None of this should been unexpected. Kuzma was joining a team with only five returning players (other than himself), and Rajon Rondo remains sidelined. Additionally, the Lakers have a new coach and new systems on both sides of the ball, and a relatively young Kuzma was naturally going to have difficulty adjusting on the fly.
But rational thought doesn’t always prevail in this market, and only a five-game Lakers winning streak was enough to quell some of the worries about Kuzma’s start. Three quarters into the Lakers’ win over Chicago, with Kuzma once again shooting poorly from the field and the Lakers headed towards a lackluster loss, the floodgates of criticism appeared ready to open.
And then, an unexpected gift arrived for Kuzma — the ability to be the number one option on offense while Anthony Davis and LeBron James rested. Frank Vogel has been relatively fastidious about staggering his two superstars, but Davis’ foul trouble created the perfect opening for Kuzma to rediscover his offensive groove.
At the start of the fourth quarter against Chicago, Kuzma took the floor with Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, and Dwight Howard. It’s the kind of lineup most Lakers fans probably hoped to never see this season outside of garbage time.
Nevertheless, Kuzma thrived.
He began the frame with a 3-pointer off a broken possession. Kuzma drove baseline on Thaddeus Young on the ensuing play, but missed the finish at the basket. That set the table for a drive from the wing two possessions later, this time with a head of steam from a Howard screen, and he was able to convert.
He followed that up with another drive from the opposite wing with four seconds left on the shot clock to complete his personal 7-0 run as the Lakers closed the deficit to six points.
A few things stood out from Kuzma’s burst that bode well moving forward. First of all, Kuzma was alert defensively. His length was a deterrent, and he made the right rotations. During that stretch, he also goaded Young into a bad pass that led to a turnover and fought through a Young screen to contest a Luke Kornet 3-point attempt.
Secondly, Kuzma never seems to lack confidence. Already 0-for-5 from distance to start the game and on the heels of a couple of bad shooting performances, Kuzma let fly the minute he got the ball. He had a good look thanks to the scrambled defense and cashed in. Playing next to James and/or Davis will give Kuzma windows for open shots, but he has to shoot in rhythm when those opportunities come.
Finally, Kuzma was aggressive getting into the paint. After a long layoff, it might be tempting to settle for jump shots instead of mix it up inside, but Kuzma drove to the basket hard. He also showed off his soft touch and acrobatic finishes around the rim.
Even as the Lakers have taken care of business against lesser opponents, a theme has emerged of inconsistent shot creation beyond James and Davis. Only three games in, Kuzma has already comfortably settled in to third on the team in shot attempts despite averaging the seventh-most minutes. Kuzma doesn’t need other people to set up shots for him, and he’s the only perimeter player who can regularly put the ball on the floor and get all the way to the basket, not just stop in the midrange and pull up.
Kuzma may look a little forced playing off of his new teammates, and has been settling for jumpers too often. But when he initiates, there is a natural flow to his game. He cuts and moves willingly. Letting him handle the rock more often could allow that part of his game to flourish.
It’s a new ecosystem playing alongside two superstars, and Kuzma may not always feel the freedom to create for himself. Showing that he’s capable of doing so, even against the Bulls, can only help his confidence. He adds unpredictability to an offense that could use some of that.
When asked what it does for both himself and the team when he’s allowed to be the number one option on offense, Kuzma said, “Individually speaking, I think it’s huge for me just due to the fact of developing as a player, being able to hone my skills and kind of transition from off-ball guy to really making plays, coming off pin-downs and being that primary scoring option. Plus, if I have it going like that, AD, Bron, they get the kind of necessary breaks that they’re going to kind of need throughout the entire season, which will be valuable for us come playoff time.”
Kuzma’s return was hotly anticipated for this very reason — his ability to ease the burden on James and Davis, at least on the offensive end. When both stars have it going, Kuzma doesn’t have to be a 20-point scorer. But when one is off, like Davis was in Chicago, Kuzma will be needed. It’s just one game, but Kuzma may have shown the first signs that he’s still able to deliver said scoring punch. That’s a welcome development for this Laker team.