Kyle Kuzma has been limited to just 23 games for the Los Angeles Lakers this season due to a few nagging injuries, one of which kept him sidelined for the entire preseason and the first four games of the regular season.
When Kuzma first returned from injury in November, his play was hot and cold, which isn’t uncharacteristic for the streaky third-year forward. But when Kuzma was bad during that stretch, he was really, really bad. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t making his shots at an efficient clip, he was also forcing passes that weren’t there, missing his defensive rotations and getting called for traveling — like, a lot.
Kuzma has missed five games since then because of an ankle injury he suffered earlier this month, and upon his second return, he’s looked much sharper. In the three games he’s played since making his return, Kuzma has averaged 21.7 points per game on 49% shooting from the field, including 36.4% from 3-point range. He’s also posted the second-highest offensive rating on the team (121.1) during that time behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (123.1) and ahead of LeBron James (118.1).
The sample size is small, but Kuzma’s starting to resemble the player Lakers fans hoped he’d be alongside James and Anthony Davis, and no one is more relieved about it than Kuzma himself.
Following the Lakers’ win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday — a game in which Kuzma scored 20 points in the first half — he told Mike Trudell of Spectrum SportsNet that he’s starting to feel like himself again:
“I worked my ass off this summer. It was a little bit frustrating and disappointing to have an injury like I had with [Team] USA, but this is what I expect from myself every game.”
But as great as Kuzma looked on Saturday, Frank Vogel believes there’s at least one other player that had a hand in Kuzma’s big night: LeBron James.
“Kuz has just given us a huge lift these last two games off the bench and sort of elevates that group, but I think ‘Bron gets some credit for how the bench played as well because he’s in there with the second unit and he was really attacking the paint, and making great reads. With 16 assists and one turnover, that’s just a really, really impressive performance by him and it helped those guys get going.”
James only assisted three of Kuzma’s baskets against the Trail Blazers, but last season James passed to Kuzma more than anyone on the team. While that’s changed this season with Davis in the fold, Kuzma isn’t worried about James forgetting about him on offense:
“Me and LeBron got great synergy. He’s always looking for me and you know I like to score... He’s a pass-first guy and he trusts me, so I just try to make the most of them and make them count when he passes to me.”
Judging by James’ praise of Kuzma after the game, Kuzma has every reason to be confident:
“We want him to be that third scorer for us. Someone that we can consistently get that 18-20 points a night. But more importantly, it’s the efficiency right now that I love. He’s just been very efficient, he’s been mixing it up with his threes, with his paint touches ... on the break as well. He’s just mixing it up.”
There are still some lingering concerns about where Kuzma fits alongside James and Davis on nights where one or both of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard are playing well, but his ability to create shots for himself and make free throws will probably give him the edge over the two aforementioned centers on most nights, and it sounds like Vogel agrees.
One thing’s for certain: The Lakers would be wise to wait and see what they have in Kuzma before making any hasty, win-now moves at the trade deadline. Kuzma may not be the perfect player, but considering his cheap contract, they’d be hard-pressed to find equal or greater value without giving up meaningful assets.
As long as Kuzma’s here and healthy, he’s going to contribute in a way that makes the Lakers better. For now, that should be enough reason to keep him around.