Editor’s Note: In this series, “The Next Step,” we are going to be taking a look at one specific thing each of the young Lakers needs to improve on over the summer. We conclude with Kyle Kuzma.
Success is a polished — and razor sharp — double-edged sword. Just ask Kyle Kuzma.
A year removed from taking Los Angeles by storm with his bombastic scoring outbursts and record-shattering numbers as a rookie, the Lakers’ boastful power-forward plopped back down to earth a bit in his sophomore campaign. It was not a completely unforeseeable outcome.
Kuzma was never expected to do what he did, at least not this early, and not this confidently. Drafted 27th overall by the Lakers in 2017, the former Ute exceeded nearly everyone’s calculations in his glowing debut campaign as he nabbed first-team All-Rookie honors, became a household name among Lakers fans and seemingly cemented himself as one of the team’s building blocks. Those are rare accomplishments for a player selected where Kuzma was in the draft.
Yet, as a sophomore, things nosedived a bit, namely his 3-point percentages (dipped from 39 percent on his wide-open threes in year one, to 31.9 percent in year two) and the subsequent warts that were revealed with every perimeter miss.
At this stage of his career, Kuzma is a scorer and little else. And that often is fine when he is scoring efficiently. But, once his shot goes awry like it did this past season from deep, his inefficiencies on the defensive end (85th out of 100 power forwards in defensive real-plus-minus last season) and all the other ancillary skills that he currently is not up to par in rapidly become magnified.
Of course it would be beneficial for all parties involved if he were to suddenly become a more balanced, two-way player over the summer. That can still be the hope, but in terms of what the next realistic step in his development should be, it may just come down to getting back to basics.
It will start with hitting some open shots — and arguably more importantly — successfully, and efficiently, filling the shoes of being LeBron James’ go-to-option, something Kuzma undoubtedly became in the duo’s first year together, and may be tasked with once again depending on how free agency pans out this summer.
Whether by design, or innate chemistry, James has always dished out the majority of his assist network to his bigs, namely those who could space the floor.
During his “Big 3” days in Miami (2010-2013) James assisted on 340 Chris Bosh baskets compared to 327 Dwyane Wade makes. In his return to Cleveland, and alongside a new “Big 3,” James would go on to drop 235 dimes to his power forward, Kevin Love, opposed to only 156 to Kyrie Irving. His trek out to palm-tree laden Los Angeles proved no different.
Among every Lakers player who shared floor time with James last season, no individual was assisted on their makes more by James than Kuzma (120). The next closest player was JaVale McGee’s 87, which continued a career trend for the King.
As the team’s quarterback on offense, James often pinpointed passes all over the court to Kuzma, who did a surprisingly solid job making himself readily available by working off-ball and proving he could be a low-usage offensive weapon.
That’s a highly attractive trait for James-led teams, but while the tandem’s immediate chemistry was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise drab season, there is still ample room left for improvement, specifically on Kuzma’s end.
As his aforementioned shooting numbers indicate, Kuzma missed a lot of open looks this season. Like a lot, a lot. While he definitely was not alone in this among Lakers players, he did miss the most. According to NBA tracking, Kuzma attempted the 11th-most wide-open threes (6+ feet of space from nearest defender) in the entire league, and among the top 11 in attempts, he had the worst 3-point percentage on these chances by a comfortable margin.
The team desperately lacked the front court spacing James has grown accustomed in his last few pit stops, and with Brook Lopez’s departure last summer, Kuzma was expected to fill the shooting void.
Things obviously did not pan out that way, as the paint was clustered with bodies more than ever before during the former league MVP’s drives to the rim. Which likely will serve as a point of emphasis next season.
Although Ty Lue is now officially out of the running to be the Lakers’ next head coach, it will not be surprising to see the team still attempt to mold their roster more aligned to the ilk of James’ former clubs’ schemes, which have historically performed at an exceptional level. Kuzma, as the team’s sole current spacing big under contract, likely will play a big role in this — barring any drastic changes this summer.
Beside the simple fact that his 3-point shooting needs to improve, Kuzma may also be best served to take some notes on how James’ former go-to-weapon in Cleveland, the aforementioned Love, was utilized.
Despite sharing the commonalities of playing the same position and an eagerness to gobble up assists from James like Hungry Hippo’s, the two are not all that similar of players, specifically in terms of how they have been used next to James on offense.
As the play type data indicates, both players unsurprisingly ended a tremendous amount of their possessions with spot-up attempts playing off James’ gravity, but Love severely outclassed him in terms of the results yielded (Love was in the 96th percentile of the league in efficiency within these attempts in 2017-18, while Kuzma was in the 34th percentile last season, according to Synergy).
But the notable outlier — besides the obvious transition/post-up differential — was how much more Love served as a the roll/pop man in Cleveland’s offense compared to Kuzma in Los Angeles.
In James’ final season with the Cavaliers, 11.7 percent of Love’s total possessions came as the roll man in the team’s screen game, of which also contained 57 pick and pop attempts.
For contrast, only 6.7 percent of Kuzma’s possessions ended in such play types, and despite playing in 11 more games than Love did that season, Kuzma ended this year with 13 less pick and pop attempts, even after posting surprisingly good efficiency outputs in his few chances (1.08 points per pick and pop possession; 76th percentile).
It is unknown why Kuzma and James did not run more screen action together this past season, especially given the 23-year-old’s exceptional floater game and his aforementioned encouraging pick and pop numbers. One possible reason, besides former head coach Luke Walton’s scheme, may be that Kuzma simply is not a technically sound screener — at least not yet.
Often slipping too early, or making lackadaisical contact with his opposition, Kuzma does not actively create the space that Love typically does on these opportunities. It is worth mentioning though that the five-time all-star, who is seven years older and 30 pounds heavier, definitely has the experience and physicality advantage over Kuzma in this sense.
This could also seen further in the discrepancy between the two player’s screen assists, as Love tallied 80 in 59 games in the 2017-18 season, whereas Kuzma collected 47 in 70 contests this past year.
This is not solely put in Kuzma’s hands in terms of implementation, as the team's developmental and eventual new coaching staff must recognize, and preach, good habits, and those much also come with regularity and thoughtful teaching.
With only two professional seasons under his belt, it is evident that Kuzma has wildly outperformed his draft stock, and more importantly from a team building perspective, his contract number up to this point.
It should not be glossed over how valuable a spacing big with advanced levels of touch, shot diversity and low usage is in the modern game, especially on a team with James and potentially another star this summer.
Still, Kuzma has a ton of work to do in terms of his overall game if he wants to reach the star status many appointed to him as a rookie. But even if he does not reach that threshold in what is still the infancy of his actual NBA service time, doing things like knocking down his open threes and fundamentally setting quality screens en route to catching yet another James-thrown dart could make a world of a difference for Kuzma individually, and for the Lakers’ success.
All stats and video per NBA.com. 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, or listen to Alex talk about what each of the young Lakers need to work on in the episode below: