Kyle Kuzma has struggled to find his footing offensively since he returned from injury earlier this month. In the four games he’s played since then, Kuzma has averaged 9 points on a lowly 37.5% from the field, including an even more disappointing 13% from 3 on 5.8 attempts per game.
Kuzma looked like he was starting to get back into the swing of things on Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls — when he scored 15 points off the bench, including 11 points in the fourth quarter — but he followed that performance with arguably one of the worst games of his career on Friday against the Miami Heat. In 25:18, Kuzma put up just 7 points on 3-9 shooting from the field, including 1-7 from 3-point territory, and turned the ball over a game-high four times.
Offensively, he’s never been worse. Defensively, though, he’s as good as he’s ever been.
Though it’s a small sample size, Kuzma is posting a career-high defensive rating of 93.9 through four games this season. The only players on the Lakers with better defensive ratings are Danny Green (92.6( and Alex Caruso (91.9). Defensive numbers can be tricky, but the “eye test” has backed it up so far, too. Last season, neither tests supported that Kuzma was a decent defender.
After the Lakers’ win over Miami — in which Los Angeles held Miami to 80 points, including 34 points in the second half — Kuzma said he plans on being more of a threat on the defensive end while he tries to break out his slump on offense.
“It’s a process. It’s going to come eventually, but I’m finding other ways to contribute to the team, and that’s on the defensive end,” Kuzma said. “Offense will come, but the biggest thing is really trying to hone in, lock in defensively. Get stops. That’s how we’re winning.”
But Kuzma knows that individual defense alone doesn’t make a team great, and he’s proud of the team defense the Lakers have played to start the season.
”We keep saying that’s our identity and that we’ll kind of live and die with it, and we do a great job of individually playing defense, but we also are a great help team as well. When guys get beat, we’re there to alter shots, block shots, get charges and our rotation has been pretty stellar this year,” Kuzma said.
It’s not unfair to assume Kuzma’s defensive numbers will fall back to earth sooner rather than later because of how bad he looked on that end in his first two seasons with the Lakers, but there’s also healthy room for optimism. While Kuzma’s effort has a lot to do with how well he’s performed on the defensive end this season, he’s also moving his feet better and looks more disciplined when guarding opposing players one-on-one.
In the final seconds of the first half of Friday’s game, Butler had Kuzma on an island and instead of over-committing and fouling on the step back like he has in the past, he kept his composure and contested the shot well, forcing a Butler miss.
If that’s the how Kuzma’s going to defend regularly, then he should have no problem staying on the court while he gets his feet under him. Like he said: Offense comes and goes, so let’s hope it comes for Kuzma sooner rather than later.