Editor’s Note: For the second year in a row, the Silver Screen and Roll staff is counting down the most interesting Lakers heading into next season. We will be going through all 20 training camp spots before the season begins, and today we continue with No. 3, Kyle Kuzma.
In the summer of 2004, the Los Angeles Lakers acquired LaMar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant and a future first-round pick in exchange for Shaquille O’Neal, who was arguably the most dominant center in the league at the time. While Butler would go on to be the only player the Lakers got in return for Shaq to make multiple All-Star games, Odom had the more successful career.
However, in order to have that success, Odom had to buy into a different role.
You see, through the first nine years of Odom’s career, he was a starter. In fact, in his first nine seasons, Odom started 573 of the 587 games he suited up for, including every game in his first four seasons with the Lakers. Then, on February 1, 2008, the Lakers acquired power forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies, creating a glut in the frontcourt with Odom, Gasol and the team’s starting center, Andrew Bynum.
The following season, Lakers head coach Phil Jackson decided that Odom would be the one to move to the bench, something Odom resented initially. Over time, though, Odom bought into his role as the leader of the second unit and it resulted in three consecutive NBA Finals appearances for the Lakers, two championships and, in 2011, a Sixth Man of the Year Award for Odom.
This season, third-year forward Kyle Kuzma will have the opportunity to have the same type of impact on the championship-hopeful Lakers.
Kuzma might not be as talented as Odom was in the prime of his career, but the situation he’ll confront this season is similar to the one Odom went into in 2009. In each of his first two NBA seasons, Kuzma has started the season on the bench, but last season he broke into the starting lineup and managed to stay there, starting 78 of the 80 games he was available for.
Kuzma did his part to earn the starting job, but he also didn’t see much competition at the power forward spot. This season, his competition for the starting gig will be Anthony Davis, a six-time All-Star, three-time block champion and three-time All-Defensive teamer.
While it’s possible that Kuzma and Davis start in the front court, that would require Davis to play center, something he’s been candid about not wanting to do regularly — at least not in the regular season. That means, in all likelihood, Kuzma will once again start the season on the bench and it’s unlikely he’ll break into the starting five like he has in years past.
Instead of spending the season trying to prove that he belongs in the starting lineup, Kuzma should embrace his role as the team’s Sixth Man like Odom did over 10 years ago because if he does, there’s a good chance he’ll have the best season of his young career.
Kuzma’s two most valuable skills at this stage of his career are his knack for putting the ball in the hoop and his willingness to make plays. Coincidentally, those are the two things the Lakers need most in the second unit alongside scorers like Quinn Cook, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jared Dudley.
Kuzma might not be the final piece of a superstar big three alongside Davis and LeBron James, but there’s a very plausible scenario where he’s the third-most valuable player on the team, similar to how Odom was when the Lakers were in contention from 2008 to 2011. Watching how he adjusts to that type of role will make him one of the most important and fascinating to watch players on the team this season.
The countdown so far...
3. Kyle Kuzma