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Lakers Season In Review: Kyle Kuzma

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Kyle Kuzma probably hasn’t reached his ceiling as a player yet, but it’s possible that he’s reached his ceiling with the Lakers.

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2020 NBA Finals - Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our “2020 Lakers Season In Review” series, where we’ll be looking back at every member of this Lakers roster as the offseason commences, and answering some questions about what they contributed (or didn’t) to the team’s 17th championship, as well as discussing what their situation is moving forward. Today, let’s discuss Kyle Kuzma.

How did he play?

If there was a Kyle Kuzma hype train chugging along last summer, I was the conductor.

While I never went as far as to say Kuzma could be the Lakers’ third star, I thought his role alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis was pretty clear: play off of the ball when they’re on the floor, and be the focal point of the offense when they’re on the bench. Kuzma didn’t live up to those expectations this past season, for both reasons in and out of his control, but that doesn’t mean the hype train isn’t still rolling along; it’s just changed tracks.

In his third season with the Lakers, the 25-year-old forward had the worst offensive season of his young NBA career, averaging 12.8 points per game on 43.6% shooting from the field in the regular season. He wasn’t much better in the postseason, where he averaged 10 points per game on 40% shooting from the field.

The drop in Kuzma’s points per game average could have been predicted with Davis getting the lion’s share of his touches from last season, but his efficiency from the field was a bit of a letdown, especially after he worked out with Lethal Shooter, Phil Handy and Team USA in the summer.

Kuzma’s third year with the Lakers wasn’t a total disappointment, though. In fact, there were a lot of positives — chief among them is the way he responded to his role drastically changing.

2020 NBA Finals - Los Angeles Lakers v Miami Heat Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

As a third-year player with a lot to prove before he becomes eligible for a contract extension, Kuzma could have pouted about not getting enough touches — an attitude would have been detrimental to a Lakers locker room that bought into a team-first mentality almost immediately. Instead, Kuzma put his head down and did what he had to help his team win, starting with the defensive end of the floor.

When the Lakers returned from their four-month hiatus in June, Kuzma was visibly more active on the defensive end, which isn’t always conducive to improvement, but in Kuzma’s case it was infinitely better than anything he had showed before. Whether that was a result of him being fully healthy or just a product of his natural development, it helped Los Angeles in a big way in the postseason.

In the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Kuzma posted the second-best defensive rating on the team (90.9) behind Alex Caruso (94.2). With Kuzma on the bend, the Lakers’ defensive rating cratered to 110.6, a 16.4-point difference. That’s because Kuzma took on the challenge of guarding all five positions, something he’s capable of because of his size and mobility.

Kuzma’s impact wasn’t as evident in the three rounds that followed, but his effort went a long way during stretches where the Lakers looked lifeless on both ends of the floor. He gave the Lakers just enough for his season to be considered a success, albeit a relative success.

What is his contract situation moving forward?

Kuzma is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract. He’s set to make $3.56 million in the 2020-21 season. The Lakers can offer him an extension, or more likely, following the upcoming campaign, they can extend a $5.2 million qualifying offer to Kuzma, which would make him a restricted free agent in 2021.

Will he be back?

2020 NBA Finals - Game Six Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Will he back? Probably. Should he back? That’s another question.

As much as Kuzma grew with the Lakers this past season, his role on the team is still unclear. For example, if Kuzma’s role with this team going forward is a high-energy player off of the bench, is he really someone that’s worth making a long-term commitment to? And if the answer to that question is no, isn’t he more valuable as an asset in a trade? I, personally, now lean towards yes.

Kuzma might not be the Lakers’ third star, but he can still be a star on another team, or something close to it — look no further than his averages as a starter.

In nine starts for the Lakers last season, Kuzma averaged 20.9 points on 49.7% shooting from the field, including 36% shooting from behind the arc, and posted a net rating of +12.8. That’s a small sample size, but its’ consistent with what Kuzma showed in his first two seasons as the Lakers’ No. 2 option on offense.

If there’s a team that believes that Kuzma can be that player for them, the Lakers should listen to what they have to offer. Why? Because what Kuzma’s doing for the Lakers right now is something other players can do for around what he’s making right now, and likely for less than what he’ll probably demand in 2021. Those players include Maurice Harkless, Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green, as well as the Lakers’ own free agent Markieff Morris.

Additionally, selling high on Kuzma would give the Lakers an opportunity to maximize the talent they have in this win-now window they’re in. Is a trade package built around Kuzma enough to get Bradley Beal out of Washington? It’s highly unlikely, but it might be enough to get a certain disgruntled All-Star out of Indiana, especially since his contract expires in 2021. Yes, I’m looking directly at you, Victor Oladipo.

It wouldn’t be the worst thing if Kuzma was on the Lakers’ opening night roster. It wouldn’t even be the worst thing if they extended him this fall. But, at the very least, the front office needs to see what his market is, something that they haven’t done in previous seasons. The days of Kuzma being untouchable should be over.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.