Kyle Kuzma was the second-leading scorer on the Lakers during each of his first two seasons in the league. He began each year on the bench and worked his way into the starting lineup because the Lakers couldn’t make do without him. He believes that he’d be starting on any other team in the NBA.
Instead, Kuzma spent this season stuck behind two of the greatest players of this generation. He began every game that LeBron James and Anthony Davis were both healthy on the bench (except for one meaningless seeding game), and had to completely re-learn the ways he could impact the Lakers on the court. Kuzma couldn’t be a volume scorer anymore; he had to figure out a different way to fit in next to the two superstars.
That role adjustment is a challenge for veteran players, and an even taller task for a third-year player who has only known one way of succeeding in the NBA (and who still hasn’t gotten his first big contract). That task became more difficult when Kuzma missed preseason and the first few games of the regular season due to an injury he suffered with USA Basketball.
Fortunately for Kuzma, he had Jared Dudley in his ear to constantly provide veteran mentorship, and he had Phil Handy to help coach him into a more effective role player. Handy explained to The Athletic how he got Kuzma to buy into his role, and what the two of them worked on to get Kuzma to be at his most productive.
“The bulk of what we do is going to run through those two players,” Handy said. “How can you complement them? How can you fit in and make yourself a valuable asset to the team? One is learning, understanding how to play with two guys like that, and understand that, well, maybe the team, for the most part, doesn’t need me to always look to score. Maybe I need to be the plug-in on defense. Maybe I just need to be shot ready. Maybe I need to be able to play off some pin-downs and get some easy baskets to get these guys a break every now and again.
“You always have to be able to help players understand: ‘I know what you want to be. OK, let’s work on that in the offseason. But during the interim of the season, what do you need to do to be on the floor to play — whether that be to defend, whether it be to rebound, whether it be to run the offense, whether it be to make open shots.’ Whatever those categories are, it’s always good to have the open conversations with them about what you want to be versus what you need to do to play.”
Kuzma’s counting stats were down this season as he played the fewest minutes of his career and had his lowest time of possession per game, but he was finally able to contribute to a winning team. He had the best defensive rating of his career and his highest block percentage. He drew fouls more frequently than in his first two seasons and also settled in as an effective spot-up shooter — particularly from the corners, where he shot 52%.
Defending his man while staying within the team scheme, providing an outlet for his teammates’ drives, and helping the Lakers get into the bonus were all ways Kuzma could contribute without hijacking a higher percentage of the team’s shots.
As Handy noted, Kuzma isn’t content being this player for the rest of his career. His best games came when he started in place of Davis during the regular season, and he’d like to be the star that pushes the younger players to the bench instead of being on the other end of the stick. Those opportunities should come for Kuzma down the line, provided he continues to develop a well-rounded game.
For now, though, Kuzma is in a role where he has to do things other than score, and he improved on those skills as the season went on, thanks in large part to an assist from the best player development coach in the game. With Handy staying in L.A., Kuzma will have a chance to further develop his skillset during the offseason and regular season to make himself an indispensable piece of the Lakers’ core. He just has to keep working at making an impact in the opportunities he gets, and patiently wait for bigger ones to come along.