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The opportunity is now for Kyle Kuzma

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Kyle Kuzma is the best hope the Lakers have for raising their ceiling this season. Either he improves his inconsistent play, or the team trades him for someone who can.

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Detroit Pistons v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

Kyle Kuzma has had something of a charmed existence in his NBA career.

He was drafted by the premier franchise in the league and immediately paired with individuals who would be beneficial to his early success. Getting to play with a fast-paced point guard Lonzo Ball in Summer League made Kuzma an instant standout, allowing him to pocket some hardware even before the real games started. Suiting up for Luke Walton, whose foibles were not yet well-documented, gave Kuzma the room to stretch his wings and show out as a scorer.

Kuzma was consistently lauded as the saving grace of the D’Angelo Russell trade, a talent that made parting with a former No. 2 overall pick more palatable. He was praised throughout his rookie season by a pantheon of Laker greats; Kobe Bryant took him out to dinner, and Jeanie Buss took pictures with him. The Lakers may not have been winners at the time, but Kuzma certainly was. His well-timed burst at the start of his rookie season created an aura, one that has surrounded him for two years.

This isn’t to say that Kuzma didn’t earn his spot. He put in the work to become a first-round pick, to win a Summer League title, to make the all-rookie first team, to join the starting lineup, and to be invited to Team USA. Kuzma’s accolades are a product of his effort — but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had a smoother path to success than some of his former teammates.

Even an injury-riddled start to his third season hasn’t worn the shine off of Kuzma. Gregg Popovich raved about Kuzma during the national team mini-camp, and lamented Kuzma’s absence from the final roster. The fact that the third-year forward is still a Laker when nearly everyone younger than him has been traded from Los Angeles is a testament to the faith the franchise has in him. He represents the promise of a third option to balance the LeBron James-Anthony Davis duopoly, or at least the best asset to upgrade a championship team.

And therein lies the current problem with Kuzma. The Lakers have to maximize his value this season. That means either Kuzma thrives as a secondary — or even tertiary — option next to the Lakers’ stars, or the team uses Kuzma to fetch another player to win now. Clearly, his value around the league remains high, given that rumors about Bogdan Bogdanovic being the starting point in a trade package to acquire Kuzma were accepted as plausible. One way or another, Kuzma is at an inflection point. The burden of being the last draft pick standing is getting a little heavier.

The Lakers have shown no qualms about shipping out young players to prioritize the present over the future. The Svi Mykhailiuk and Ivica Zubac-shaped holes in the doors still remain after the Lakers chased them away during last year’s trade deadline. Kuzma may have been worth keeping around this summer when the team thought he could evolve into a consistent scoring option, but there is no more sentimentality for a player if he can’t contribute to a championship this season.

Fortunately for Kuzma, in the midst of renewed trade rumors that have been an inescapable feature of his Lakers tenure, an opportunity has emerged for him to reclaim his value.

The latest injury to Anthony Davis could have been much worse, and may not even keep Davis out of any upcoming games, but the Lakers should feel some pressure to limit their young superstar for the foreseeable future to protect this health. If Davis is unable to go on a back-to-back, or is simply on a minutes restriction, the natural choice to replace him in the starting lineup — and in the box score — is Kuzma.

Even with his inconsistencies, Kuzma is third on the team in 20-point games with four this season. Danny Green has three and Dwight Howard has one, but no other Laker outside of Davis and James has managed to clear that barrier this season, demonstrating the difficulty the team has had generating offense outside its superstars. When Kuzma has played without the two stars, the Lakers have cratered. He needs to show the ability to keep the team afloat with his offense, or at least tread water.

Scoring and excelling in isolation might help Kuzma improve his trade value, but he has his sights set higher. This is his chance to prove that he can meaningfully impact winning for the Lakers.

In that respect, Kuzma needs to prove that he has a place in the team’s best lineups. Fortunately, the chemistry between Kuzma and James remains from last season. Kuzma’s improvisational nature on offense is aided by James’ ability to find every passing angle, and Kuzma’s movement helps with the spacing around James. Even without Davis on the floor, lineups including Kuzma and James have a plus-13.7 differential, per Cleaning the Glass. Those minutes could be more frequent in this next stretch of games as Davis recovers from his gluteus maximus contusion.

Kuzma has already demonstrated a fit with both Davis and James together. Lineups with all three have outscored opponents by 19.9 points per 100 possessions, though that figure tends to get lost when discussing Kuzma’s positional fit next to the two superstars.

Kuzma’s third season has not lived up to the promise of his first two. In retrospect, it’s fair to wonder if the expectations were too high for a volume scorer who has never been a paragon of efficiency. But Kuzma has the talent to contribute, and his best moments depict a player who can have an important role on a contending Lakers team; an increased opportunity to showcase those skills couldn’t come at a better time for him, even if the reason for it isn’t ideal.

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