Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma’s path to the FIBA Basketball World Cup got a whole lot easier this past week. Not only did Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox withdraw his name from Team USA, but Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker—arguably Kuzma’s biggest competition for a roster spot—had to leave training camp with an ankle injury.
Prior to heading home to Houston, though, Tucker talked to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com about what he’s seen from Kuzma on the defensive end during training camp and what the 23-year-old still needs to improve on:
Asked respected defender PJ Tucker about Kuz, who’s been focusing on his defense. Tucker said verbal communication is a big key, then added: "He’s so young and athletic, he has so much energy … he has a chance to be a really good defender, be a good 2-way player.”— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) August 15, 2019
Considering Tucker has ranked in the top-20 among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus in each of the last three seasons, he has some merit to talk about defense. Tucker wasn’t the only person to sing Kuzma’s praises, though.
Donovan Mitchell on Kuz’s defense: "He’s a defensive player now. He can play defense. People kind of knock (his defense), I don’t know why … But he’s a guy who’s taking the charge, communicating … I think that shows a lot to his maturity and a lot about his work ethic."— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) August 15, 2019
If Kuzma can live up to all of the hype next season, the Lakers will go from playoff contenders to title contenders pretty quickly.
One of the biggest questions with the roster as constructed is who’s going to step up and defend bigger wing players when James isn’t on the floor. While one of Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope could be that player, it would be Kuzma in an ideal world.
Kuzma suddenly becoming a stout defender would also make it easier for head coach Frank Vogel to close games with him on the floor. Last season, Kuzma gave up 110.9 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter, third to LeBron James and JaVale McGee, who allowed 114.5 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter.
It’s a miracle the Lakers finished ranked No. 18 in fourth quarter defense last season.
Could Tucker and Mitchell just because talking up their Team USA teammate? Absolutely, but for the sake of Kuzma and the Lakers, let’s hope that’s not the case.