With the dust still settling after the bombastic Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers trade, and the uncertainty of what comes next that lingers, there is one thing that has been made evident during this process — Kyle Kuzma is a survivor.
Although his perceived basketball standing varies from future bonafide star to inefficient and one-dimensional chucker depending on who you ask, Kuzma, the popular scoring forward, has outlasted three lottery picks (four, if you count D’Angelo Russell — which may change) several fan favorites and multiple Magic Johnson gifs to stand as the sole remaining young guy after a tumultuous rebuild era for the Lakers.
That’s an impressive feat for a player previously taken 27th overall. And despite getting backlash from segments of Lakers’ fans who would have preferred the team keep the likes of Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram instead in the Davis swap, Kuzma has secured his current spot by not only being the beneficiary of luck, but by simply playing the game on and off the court.
Like Joel and Ellie in the videogame “The Last of Us,” Kuzma has proved to be aptly resourceful even within the most dire of situations. Although not to the extent of warding off cannibalistic beings with bandaged weaponry, the Michigan native did see the danger laying in plain sight within the franchise as they headed into what is expected to be a major offseason shakeup, and prepared accordingly.
Last month, Kuzma strolled into Chicago draped in a bold purple blazer with a shiny gold “Hand of the King” pin over his breast pocket while serving as the team’s 2019 NBA Draft lottery representative (a potential first sign of where he stood on the young core hierarchy chain) at the annual event. The Lakers would go on to jump into the No. 4 spot that night, clearing the way for the monumental trade for Davis to finally occur.
Although the team-centric color attire and not so subtle nod to LeBron James with his visible accessory was realistically not a major deciding factor to why he survived the inevitable trade, it did exemplify an awareness of the politics that go beyond the basketball court by the 23-year-old that was hard to ignore.
In the aftermath of the trade, some have pointed to things like that as the reason Kuzma is still around, and there is little denying that Kuzma badly wants to be a Laker. That isn’t to say Ball, Ingram or Hart did not, but there is a clear distinction in the multitude of efforts Kuzma has made to remain in Los Angeles that helped pave the way for it to remain his permanent residence.
Beside dawning the aforementioned Lakers’ garb, Kuzma’s participation in extracurricular activities such as going to dinner with Jeanie Buss a few weeks prior to the trade, and publicly announcing he would be participating at Kobe Bryant’s “Mamba Academy” just three days before the blockbuster, has proven he knows just the right chords to hit among team officials’ and fans’ heartstrings to bolster his case for sticking on the roster.
Kuzma’s ties to Bryant in particular continue to be an underlying subplot in his favor amidst his first two seasons in the NBA. Beside, his recent active role at Bryant’s basketball camp, he has also previously privately worked out with the Laker legend, admitted to model “certain parts of his game” after him and divulged that the two “talk a lot.”
While there is very likely genuine admiration at play given how popular Bryant was and continues to be for this generations’s crop of players, one cannot help but take note of the timing and target of Kuzma’s calculated gestures, especially given this franchise’s reverence to the past, and the fact that Bryant’s former agent — Rob Pelinka — is now general manager of the team.
But simply pinpointing Kuzma’s spot on the roster due to ‘kissing up’ is a disingenuous disservice, and while it is important political maneuvering from a young player, not taking into consideration the on-the-court fit and logistical elements in terms of team building is missing a large piece of the big picture in why Kuzma is still a Laker today.
Even if one sheds where he was selected in the draft in combination with his marketing factor, there are few players — young or old — that have provided similar production on the court in relation to their contract like Kuzma has for Los Angeles.
Fresh off a season where he averaged just a whisker under 19 points per contest, Kuzma is set to make just under $2 million dollars this upcoming season. Then he’ll get a modest raise, with a $3.5 million team option that will likely be on the books the season following.
Those contractual numbers, while cold in the world of basketball assessment, are especially vital for a Lakers’ team who needs every penny of spending power they can get with a roster that will suddenly be built around the star duo of James and Davis going forward.
While it undoubtedly would have been exciting to see the likes of Ball and Ingram to play beside the pair, their dollar amounts and impending extensions — in conjunction with the team lacking other outgoing money-matching salaries to send to New Orleans — may have made it too difficult to swing a deal without their inclusions.
And beside just his beneficial contract, there is also the notion that the front office felt Kuzma projects and proved to be most able to slot in next to high usage stars. That’s not an entirely outlandish idea, either, even given what his perceived play-style is around the league.
Yes, there is merit in painting Kuzma as a one-dimensional, score-first player based off his resume thus far, which often is not an ideal trait one looks for in players on a star-led team, but the concept that he “needs” to dribble the ball for five to eight seconds before hoisting in order to be successful is not entirely valid, and is where he could potentially bring the most value.
Last season, Kuzma displayed an innate ability to not only work off of James on offense, but made sure that when he caught it, he was ready to pounce. Upping his possessions that resulted in a “cut” from 74 as a rookie to 102 this year according to Synergy, Kuzma noticeably made an effort to move without the ball and make himself readily available.
In the process, he quickly became James’ favorite target on offense.
James would go on to assist on 120 Kuzma makes this past season, which not only was the highest assist tally the former league MVP had to a single other Laker, but was 33 more than the next closest player (JaVale McGee) and 13 more total assists James had to the trio of Ball, Ingram and Hart combined, according to PBP stats.
Kuzma’s ability to gobble up passes and points may sound relatively easy, but there is no mistake that it is no easy feat.
Just think back to how many instances Ingram and James-led lineups felt clunky, or the overall movement on offense became stagnant last year. And while this improved as the season progressed, the adjustment period to playing with a star simply was noticeably quicker for Kuzma than his fellow teammates. That’s something the front office, and likely James himself, took note of.
Kuzma potentially could be the coveted type of player who can function on a team filled with multiple high-usage options, actively seeking out opportunities to thrive off their gravity through his cutting and low-maintenance avenues of scoring.
According to Second Spectrum, Kuzma averaged the fifth-fewest touches per game among players who scored at least 18 ppg last season, and had the seventh-lowest time of possession among his peers within this criteria.
However, in order for Kuzma to fully excel in this potential role — likely a vital one considering the uncertain amount of cap space the Lakers will have at their disposal this summer — he needs to not only continue these off-ball actions, but improve on them.
Despite a higher frequency, and more overall chances, Kuzma ranked in just the 35th percentile on cuts in the NBA. Arguably more importantly though, the soon to be third-year forward must find a way to recapture the 3-point stroke he showcased as a rookie, as it notably went awry last year even with a tremendous amount of quality looks that came his way.
Kuzma attempted 263 “wide-open” threes last season, which was 11th-most in the league. Unfortunately, he only converted them at a 31.9 percent clip, which was easily the worst mark among those eleven players with a high volume of chances. This will need to improve significantly.
Although there are divisive opinions that vary from fan to fan when asked about who the Lakers gave up versus who they kept in the Davis trade, there is little questioning that Kuzma has put the work in and truly wants to be on this team, and in this city. In the grand scheme of things, that may not mean all that much in terms of determining wins or losses, but they can’t hurt, and there are also genuine basketball and cap reasons to keep him.
Kuzma may ultimately be the epitome of “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” As easily as one can question the merits of the how’s and why’s he outlasted every single other member of the young core, at the same time, the fact that he put in the work to survive on and off the court is admirable, especially for a player that lacked the pre-draft pedigree and hype of the teammates he was chosen over.
And with two years of the NBA under his belt, and likely as the only member of the previous installments of the rebuild era that will see the light of this new Lakers’ chapter, it is once again time for Kuzma to prove people wrong. It is once again time to get to work.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 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.