Saturday looked like it was going to be another one of those nights for Kyle Kuzma, and not in the way the Lakers were hoping it would be.
In the first half of the Lakers’ game against the Houston Rockets, Kuzma shot 2-6 from the field, including 1-4 in the first quarter. It was a disappointing but all too familiar start for the 24-year-old, who shot 30.4% from the field in the two previous games and contributed a total of 15 points.
With Anthony Davis still sidelined, they were going to need more from the third-year forward, who was touted as the third-most valuable player on the team going into the season.
So, in the second half, Kuzma cleaned things up on offense and scored a team-high 17 points on on 6-10 shooting from the field, including 2-5 shooting from behind the arc. He ended the night with 23 points, second to only LeBron James, who scored 31 points to go along with his 12 assists.
However, as encouraging it was it to see Kuzma break out of his shooting slump, it was his contributions on the defensive end that earned him praise from his teammates after the game — specifically his defensive effort on Russell Westbrook.
Following the Lakers’ win, LeBron James credited Kuzma for taking the challenge of guarding Kuzma in the second half (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“A lot changed in the third quarter, but most importantly, Kuz switched onto Russ and just made it tough on Russ … Kuz kept his body in front of him, made him take tough shots. He made a couple, but Kuz made it tough on him and that changed the game for us.”
Kuzma told reporters that challenge was brought upon him by Rajon Rondo, who sat out of Saturday’s game with a finger fracture but still played an important role as a leader on the bench:
“Rondo kind of pulled me to the side at halftime in the locker room and just asked me if I could guard him. I said ‘of course.’ Westbrook was really hurting us in the first half by posting up our guards. He’s a tough load, just a tough, strong, physical guard. In the second half, that kind of got eliminated, putting a bigger body on him.”
Kuzma is only credited with one possession against Westbrook by NBA.com, but in re-watching the tap, he forced Westbrook to miss three shots as the primary defender and even drew an offensive foul against by him taking a smart charge. While his versatility as a scorer is what makes his ceiling so high, his defense is what’s going to raise his floor and prolong his career in the NBA.
Kuzma admitted that adjusting to playing defense in the NBA has been a painstaking process over the last three years, but he’s determined to figure it out, and he thinks he’s made progress:
“For me that’s what I want to do every game, to come out and prove myself defensively. You guys know it’s hard to shake narratives, and people may say I don’t play defense, but it is what it is. I know what I’m doing.”
Luckily, Kuzma’s feelings can be backed up by facts, as he’s posting a career-high defensive rating of 104.8. It’s still one of the lower defensive ratings on the team, but it’s no longer among the worst in the league.
As long as Kuzma continues to make strides on the defensive end, his teammates and coaches will be more willing to let him work through his cold streaks.