In the third year following the deliverance of our lord and savior, King James, Kyle Kuzma is at an inflection point in his career. In the final year of his rookie deal, the Lakers will get to take the season, or at least until the trade deadline, to decide whether they want to make Kuzma a significant part of their future.
Coming into last season, the widespread hope amongst some residents of Laker Nation was that Kyle Kuzma could blossom into the Lakers’ third star. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Kuzma turned the volume of his preseason expectations to 11 after he suggested as much.
Though Kuzma’s fallen far short of such lofty goals, he has another chance to earn the label of the Lakers’ third banana by taking the leap this season, and at least one pretty big Lakers fan still believes in him:
In fact, it’s Kuzma’s on-court chemistry with the King himself that should give believers faith that the young forward can indeed make the leap this year, so long as the Lakers empower him to play within his strengths. While he’s still mostly terrible with the ball in his hands, save for the occasional outburst, he’s proven to be a capable complimentary piece when a better ball-handler and passer serves as a primary playmaker, putting Kuzma in positions to succeed.
Despite being one of his greatest weaknesses in past seasons, Kuzma’s ability to plausibly switch between defending either forward position has become one of his more reliable on-floor characteristics. He said so himself on Media Day, telling reporters “I just want to build on what I did in the playoffs from a defensive standpoint.”
While his lateral quickness leaves much to be desired, often getting blown by or cooked on step-backs, his seven-foot wingspan and engagement in team concepts allowed him to recover and contest shots at the rim without fouling, something smaller wing defenders simply wouldn’t be able to do. In fact, the Basketball Index graded him as an above average rim protector, despite being an average defender just about everywhere else, mostly due to his ability to deter shorter guards from getting easy shots at the rim. Kuzma acquitted himself reasonably well on defense, even as a frequent target of isolations due to his reputation as an abhorrent defender.
Harden isn't even really worried about making a basket on these possessions, he's just trying to get to the line. Kuzma does a great job of keeping his hands high, moving his feet and not fouling. pic.twitter.com/QtTCGZ3tUr— UnwrittenRules (@UnwrittenRul3s) September 9, 2020
Also, as a cutter, Kuzma occasionally flashes moments of basketball brilliance, dusting his defender baseline with a weak-side cut for a layup, or waiting until the defense collapses on the driver to open up a lane for a floater from the paint.
Another of Kuzma’s discrete strengths is his ability to crash the rim for rebounds as a perimeter player on offense. A more frequent offensive rebounder than LeBron (per 75 possessions, according to the Basketball Index), when he wasn’t shooting, Kuzma’s generally strong understanding of a bouncing basketball enabled him to do a little bit of this:
And as with the rest of the Lakers, Kuzma also benefitted from playing fast and scoring in transition. Both LeBron and Rajon Rondo proved willing and capable of throwing pinpointed outlet bombs to streaking bigs, something Kuzma has been particularly apt to handle due to his impressive straight-line speed for his size, dexterous hands, and feel for finishing around the basket (over 70% in the restricted area).
But when Kuzma was given the ball and asked to create offense for himself and others, he was almost entirely incapable. He finished the season in the 13th percentile on isolations, and the 34th percentile as the pick and roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports. While Kuz struggled mightily on off the dribble (shooting 16.7%) and above the break threes (25.4%), he was a sniper from the corners. He shot 45.5% from the left corner and a blistering 59.4% from the right, but he only attempted about one each game on average.
For all of the bad threes Kuzma stumbled into and inevitably clanked, the Basketball Index graded his overall 3-point shot quality with an F (in the 7th percentile). By combining whether the shooter was stationary or running into the shot, his openness compared to the closest defender, whether his shot was a pull up or a catch and shoot, and the distance of the shot, this metric can help contextualize a 3-point shooter’s makes and misses within a richer understanding of the kinds of shots he was taking.
Though most of Kuzma’s shots per NBA.com’s advanced stats were either open or wide open, they were less so than the league average, per the Basketball Index. Also, with such a relatively high volume of pull-ups and above the break threes (a dice roll) compared to stand-still corner ones (a coin flip), it’s no wonder Kuzma shot so poorly. If Kuzma was fed P.J. Tucker’s shot diet, we might have a completely different perception of his ability as a shooter.
Of course, a more dynamic shooter capable of making bad shots is a more valuable player, a la Steph Curry, a fellow member of the sub-10%, F-rated 3pt shot quality club. But, asking a P.J. Tucker to shoot like a Steph Curry is a perfect way to undermine a player who might otherwise be a valuable contributor. In this light, the fact that Kyle Kuzma took worse threes than Steph Curry and still made over 30% of them is a near-miracle, and should be a source of optimism for Kuzma Stans.
When Kuzma was asked only to do what he was excellent at, he was just that. This past season, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma made for the Lakers’ second-best two-man lineup by net rating with at least 500 minutes of shared time (after LBJ and Caruso, the NBA’s single best two-man unit). Those lineups played like one of the NBA’s very best teams, outscoring opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions, as LeBron was able to maximize all of the things Kuzma does best, and prevent him from having to do any of the things he does poorly.
Although the Lakers’ added depth could cut into Kuzma’s overall minutes with everyone on the roster at full speed, that won’t necessarily be the case at least to start the regular season. With LeBron, Frank Vogel, and Rob Pelinka all hinting at plans to ease their aging superstar into the season, Kuzma should have another opportunity to prove his worth to the team. Whether that means LeBron, and perhaps Davis, skipping games entirely, or agreeing to a significant reduction in their minutes, Kuzma should be able to match or exceed the 25 minutes per game he received last season in the early going.
This time around, even with LeBron on the bench, the Lakers will have Dennis Schröder to handle the primary playmaking duties, and they won’t have to wait for Playoff Rondo to suddenly appear. Marc Gasol, too, should be able to initiate offense, finding cutters and open shooters from the pinch post and low-block, as he has for years in Toronto, and before that, Memphis. Montrezl Harrell even, next to AD, could suck defenses into the middle, allowing Kuzma and Davis to spot up in a preferred spot and either fire away from deep or attack off the catch.
Barring LeBron’s quote-tweeted promise of a “giant leap,” Kuzma will never be the dynamic one-man-show that, for moments, his early career showed the potential for. However, for the 27th pick in the draft, he’s shown specific skills that can be particularly valuable to a team capable of crafting specific opportunities for him to succeed, rather than asking him to do it all on his own.
At an inflection point in his career, Kuzma would no doubt love for the Lakers to offer him a significant extension past the expiration of his rookie deal following the conclusion of this coming season. Last month, Rob Pelinka said the topic hadn’t yet been broached, but more recently, Kuz offered that talks between the team and his agent have begun. While the Lakers are reportedly open to the idea of extending him, Kuzma has made his desire for a “sizable” deal loud and clear. If two sides are to come to an agreement to keep Kuzma in the purple and gold for the foreseeable future, they’ll need to do so before Dec. 21, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent following the conclusion of the 2020-21 season.
With endless moxie, hairdos, and fits for days, Kuzma’s just the kind of player and personality that Dr. Buss’ Lakeshow has so desperately wanted to thrive within a winning culture since they struck out on Dennis Rodman. And with the right atmosphere and innate talent already in place, Kuzma’s primed to shine, so long as he can find a way to be a star in his role.