Before the start of the regular season, there was a hope amongst Lakers fans that Kyle Kuzma would emerge as the third star on the team next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. It was a goal Kuzma set for himself, too.
While that hasn’t been the case for Kuzma for most of the season, he’s stepped up and played like a star during a time where the Lakers have been short a few.
In Saturday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder — a game in which James, Davis and Danny Green were unavailable due to injuries — Kuzma scored a season-high 36 points on an efficient 62.5% shooting from the field. He also added 7 rebounds and posted a net rating of +24.1.
In the previous game against the Dallas Mavericks, when only Davis was out, Kuzma scored 26 points; more points than he had scored in the previous two games combined and, at the time, the most points he had scored all season.
Kuzma has had stretches like this earlier in the season, most notably upon coming back from injury the second time in late-December, but Lakers head coach Frank Vogel is confident that Kuzma’s current level of play is sustainable (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“I think it’s real. A lot of it is just he’s been hampered by the injuries, and struggling a little bit to try and find his rhythm. But since he’s been back the last few games, he’s been playing at a really high level,” Vogel said. “Hopefully he keeps it going.”
Vogel can do more than just hope Kuzma will keep it going, though: He can also put Kuzma in positions to succeed when James and Davis are back in the lineup.
A large part of the reason Kuzma’s been so successful over the last two games has been Vogel’s willingness to let him handle the ball. While it would be unfair to call Kuzma an isolation scorer with how good he is at moving without the ball, he’s definitely a more efficient and productive player when he’s creating his own shot. Kuzma himself said as much after Saturday’s game:
“I just got an opportunity to get scoring opportunities. Having the ball in my hands in a pick-and-roll, just finding a rhythm.”
On the season, Kuzma is shooting 54.2% from the field when he dribbles the ball seven or more times. When he’s dribbled the ball one or less times, he’s shot 43.3% from the field. In other words, if Kuzma is being used as a spot up shooter, his versatility as a scorer isn’t being utilized properly.
Luckily, it sounds like Vogel plans on getting Kuzma more involved going forward, and he always felt like this breakout would come for the 24-year-old:
“To me, it was just a matter of time. Everybody just has to be patient, wait, it’s gonna continue to grow. The role’s gonna continue to grow, his comfort level’s gonna continue to grow and you’re gonna see performances like you saw tonight from him.”
Does that mean Kuzma will have a place in the starting lineup once James and Davis return? Probably not, but as long as he’s getting playing time, Kuzma is confident he’ll be able to contribute in any role:
“I just know I’m going to get a lot more opportunities … I know the rhythm is going to be there … A lot of times when you’re playing minutes and you know where the shots are going to come, it’s a little easier to get in the game and just take your time and poise.”
Hopefully these past two games have been a learning experience for both Vogel and Kuzma, and model for how they can have success together moving forward.