LOS ANGELES — The Lakers needed to find a way to get Kyle Kuzma going, and an injury to Anthony Davis provided the perfect opportunity. While the team wouldn’t have wished for the circumstances, they were going to make the best of them.
Kuzma moved into the starting lineup to begin their recent two-game road trip. He responded with a season-high 26 points against the Dallas Mavericks, only to top it the next night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, dropping 36 to help carry the Lakers to a win.
The second night was when the Lakers really may have found something, though, as given the absence of LeBron James, the team needed someone to handle the ball more. The results of them choosing Kuzma to bear that burden were better than anyone could have expected.
“We did get Kuz involved as the pick and roll ballhandler more than we’ve done this season, and it was really effective,” Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel said on Monday. “Carrying the load the way he did is something that I think will benefit us in the second part of the season.”
Kuzma thought the minutes without Davis did help, even if his scoring slowed down a bit on Monday against the Cavaliers, who held Kuzma to 11 points on 13 shots. Kuzma also noticeably ran less pick and roll in that contest, although his numbers in it are still impressive.
According to NBA.com, pick and rolls as the ballhandler have made up just 8.7% of Kuzma’s plays this year, but he still ranks in the 78th percentile in the league in terms of his effectiveness in that set. That’s not going to set the world on fire, but it is passable, and for context is only slightly worse than LeBron (79th percentile). Kuzma is also shooting 50% on plays as a ballhandler in the pick-and-roll, and it’s a set he says he’s “for sure” developed comfort in.
“Because any time you can just touch the ball, it doesn’t have to be me shooting it to get in a rhythm, but just holding the ball. There is the old saying ‘the ball has energy,’ and just dribbling it and finding the rhythm, it helps and goes a long way,” Kuzma said.
With all the injuries, Kuz was one of the Lakers' primary ball handlers in OKC and didn't let the opportunity go to waste.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) January 12, 2020
He was absolutely on fire off the dribble. pic.twitter.com/lhfu2WC2DC
The issues with using Kuzma in this way consistently are twofold. For one, LeBron James will be handling the ball the majority of the time when he and Kuzma share the floor as starters, while Rajon Rondo will likely do the same when Kuzma moves back to the bench. There is also the reality that Kuzma isn’t the most natural facilitator — a skill that’s usually demanded from pick-and-roll ballhandlers — although teammate JaVale McGee thinks Kuzma is better in that respect than he gets credit for.
“Especially more at the end of last year, I felt like he started to feel his way. He can score still, and if he’s getting double-teamed he can dish it off,” McGee said.
Regardless of when the growth started for Kuzma, Vogel has wanted to make sure it’s continued amid an injury-riddled campaign for the third-year forward.
“Obviously he’s had a difficult start to the season in terms of injuries and finding a rhythm and getting his legs under him. We knew it was just a matter of time before that came around,” Vogel said. “Maybe it was these couple of games with AD out that finally got him into that rhythm that we know he’s capable of, and hopefully that carries over when guys are healthy.”
In order for that to happen, Jared Dudley — whose locker is right next to Kuzma’s and has been open about wanting to mentor him this season — says that Kuzma is going to have to continue “to show the same aggressiveness he’s been showing as a starter, and picking and choosing his spots.” Kuzma says that’s what he’s trying to do.
“(I’m) just trying to be consistent with my attitude and effort, I think that’s the biggest thing, because that’s the only thing I can really control. Can’t control shots going in, but you can control attitude and effort. This past trip both of those things were really high, and my game kind of reflected from the positive vibes,” Kuzma said.
Kuzma is one of the Lakers’ last wildcards. Most of this team is developed, but the 24-year-old is the one guy currently on the roster that could raise their ceiling up a few notches if he starts to fit in a little bit better, and live up to the potential the Lakers saw in him to be the third option on a title contender.
“You have to have a spark plug that can change the game, and that’s Kyle Kuzma,” Dudley said.
And if the Lakers can find way to siphon Kuzma a few pick and rolls per night, they may have just found the on switch.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.