Coming into his third season as a Laker and fresh off being the one young player kept around in the trade that saw Anthony Davis come to Los Angeles, Kyle Kuzma had visions of being a star. He told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk that after putting in a summer of work, he expected to continue to develop into a player that was capable of “being that superstar” that could play next to LeBron James and Davis.
Through 21 games this season, Kuzma’s not quite there yet. Far from it, actually.
After missing the team’s first four games to finish recovering from a stress reaction in his foot he sustained while playing with Team USA in preparation for this summer’s World Cup, Kuzma started slowly... as should have been expected. After finding his rhythm and providing vital contributions to a few wins, Kuzma then suffered a laceration to his eye. That setback slowed his progress, only to be compounded with a recent ankle sprain. Kuzma’s continued to play through those latter ailments, but his game has been up and down as he’s adjusted to his new role as a bench player who’s seen his minutes, shots and touches go down playing on a team with championship aspirations.
Life comes at you fast.
As frustrated as fans have been with Kuzma of late, however, I prefer to play the long game of patience, and re-prioritizing Kuzma’s development into a key piece whose production will be needed for this team to reach its ultimate goal. Kuzma’s preseason proclamations of potential stardom look like an overreach now — and maybe that will be the case all year. But he’s still the most viable candidate to be the Lakers third-best player and at only 24 years old, he needs to be invested in and developed into the player the team needs him to be. Even as their bigger goals this season place him more naturally among the rest of the role players as a lower-tiered contributor.
These things do not need to be at odds, however. Kuzma can be looked at as a role player next to AD and LeBron, but there are ways the coaches can utilize him — both within the team’s schemes and via some tweaked rotations — that help nudge him closer to the reliable third scorer the Lakers will need him to be. To Frank Vogel’s credit, he seems to understand this, too, as he explained before the Lakers’ win over the Nuggets on Tuesday (via Spectrum SportsNet, emphasis mine):
“He’s had sort of a disjointed season. Starting with the foot injury, and then he had the eye injury and then he had the ankle sprain, and it’s really broken his rhythm. When he’s able to get going, something kind of knocks him back a little bit. He didn’t shoot the ball well last game, but I thought he played pretty well and you always take the makes and misses out of the total performance. I think he’s playing good basketball and we’ve got to continue to find ways to make sure we’re putting him in a good position to do what he does best, which is score the ball.
So, what are those things the Lakers can do better to set Kuzma up for success? Kuzma is most effective offensively when getting out in transition, when working off cuts and slashing to the paint, and when spotting up as a shooter where he can either get a clean look at an open jumper or attack a close out.
Kuzma is less effective when having to come off screens and turn into his jumper, work in isolation off the dribble, or post up. Those latter parts of his game are clearly things he’s working on, but they’re just not at the point where they are consistent weapons for him. And while there are things he can do to unlock these skills to improve his chances at success himself, optimizing the things he does well already should also be a priority for the coaches.
One thing to help ease this along is through lineup combinations. Early returns on personnel groupings that Kuzma is a part of show that the Lakers have the most success when Kuzma is paired with LeBron. And while Kuzma may say that his mentality is to play the same style whether he shares the floor with LeBron or not, the numbers say he should be on the court as much as possible with his star teammate.
Heading into the Lakers’ win against the Utah Jazz, in the 238 minutes Kuzma has shared the floor with LeBron, the Lakers have outscored their opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions, with offensive and defensive ratings better than their regular season numbers as well. Further, Kuzma shoots 6.2% better from the floor overall and 5.8% better from beyond the arc when he plays alongside LeBron.
The Lakers success only goes up when Kuzma is on the floor with both LeBron and Davis. In the 85 minutes those three had shared the floor before the Jazz game, the Lakers boasted a net rating of +23.7 and have defended at an elite rate. And while Kuzma’s individual numbers suffer during these minutes (his shooting percentage drops to 40% and he’s only hit 6 of his 18 shots from behind the arc), his function within these units is smoother due to his pre-existing chemistry with LeBron. I’d argue that Kuzma needs even more minutes with LeBron and Davis, not only to see if these team numbers are sustainable over a larger sample, but to get Kuzma more reps with both Lakers stars to better acclimate him where he can grow more comfortable in how he can be most effective working off both players.
From a schematic standpoint, I’d like to see Vogel use more screen actions involving Kuzma that get him on the move towards the basket rather than the stagger and wide pin-downs that are pushing him more into a shooter’s role. One of Kuzma’s better traits as a scorer is his ability to hit shots from all angles when going downhill, showing great skill with floaters and wrong footed runners that rank him near the top of the league in efficiency on these types of shots. Using Kuzma as an off-ball screener for Davis — where he can read defenses and capitalize off the attention AD draws — is a wonderful way to capitalize on Kuz’s smarts as a cutter and craft as a finisher while on the move.
I’d also like to see Kuzma get a few more chances in the open court as a ball handler via outlet passes and hit aheads so he can attack defenses before they’re set and utilize his open court footwork and skill in finishing vs. defenders in space. Kuzma can have tunnel vision in these scenarios too, but this is why I’m not advocating he be leaned on heavily and given too many of these opportunities, only that he get more chances at them. If this means giving him a couple of possessions a game at the expense of Rondo (or even LeBron) in an attempt to get him going, I see no problem in playing the long game in order to get the most out of him. Again, the goal is to play him in ways that skew towards his strengths rather than simply telling him he needs to fit in.
And that really is the bigger point, here. In seeking a balance between having Kuzma play a regimented role and letting him loose in order to cater to more of his instincts as a scorer, Kuzma is being steered towards conservative play too often. This may be the best way to limit mistakes and keep the Lakers successful in the short term of a single game, or a short stretch of the regular season. It may also serve him well in the playoffs when game-plans necessitate a more focused and deliberate attack.
But, if the Lakers are going to be their absolute best, they will also need a Kuzma who is comfortable being unleashed in ways that play to his mentality as a gunner. Because, in the long term, they’ll probably need that guy too; that guy can swing a playoff game or two on nights where your superstars are not at their best. We haven’t seen that version of Kuzma much this regular season, and it’s time for him and the Lakers to work together to actively try and change that.
In the end, there is a proper balance to be struck here and it’s really on everyone to figure it out. Kuzma is certainly being asked to sacrifice some of his individual game in order to better fit in to a team that has high aspirations. Kuzma, to his credit, understands this fully and is being the good soldier by heeding this advice. But in finding the right balance, Kuzma also needs to push the boundaries a bit more individually, which can be helped along by the coaches actively seeking out ways to offer those opportunities. If that can happen, in the long run, it will not only get the best out of the player, but it can raise the already-high ceiling of a really good team.