Talen Horton-Tucker has been the talk of Tinsel Town as of late, and rightfully so. Less than a month removed from his 20th birthday, Horton-Tucker’s looked like the Lakers’ best player in the preseason, averaging 23.3 points, 8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game. Yes, it’s just the preseason, but those numbers shouldn’t be completely disregarded either.
Horton-Tucker isn’t the only Laker that has impressed in the preseason, though. Kyle Kuzma has gotten his fourth year off to a roaring start, averaging 22 points per game on 46.7% shooting from the field and 47.6% shooting from behind the arc. Again, it is just the preseason, but the type of confidence Kuzma has played with is something Lakers fans haven’t seen since his breakout rookie campaign, particularly when it comes to his outside shooting. That’s not a coincidence.
After the Lakers’ 112-107 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday, in which Kuzma made four 3-pointers in eight attempts, the 25-year-old forward explained why he thinks he’s had so much success from behind the arc in the preseason.
“I just got up a lot of threes during the short offseason,” Kuzma said. “You know, just trying to figure out my role. And one thing that I could add that Frank [Vogel] said in my exit meeting was being able to shoot off the move... Anytime I’ve got an open look, I’m shooting confidently.”
Frank Vogel has pleased with what he’s seen from Kuzma through the first three games of the preseason, but Kuzma’s production hasn’t come as a big surprise to the Lakers’ head coach — he knows what Kuzma is capable of and, most importantly, the amount of time he dedicates to his craft.
“The thing that sticks out is how hard he works,” Vogel said. “When you see a guy that works that hard, you’re not surprised when they have success on the court. He’s playing at a high level, he’s playing with confidence, he’s really not forcing any action. He’s getting his shots within the rhythm of the offense.
“I’m happy to see him continuing to grow. He’s going to be a big part of what we do this year.”
Kuzma was supposed to play a big role for the Lakers last season, too, but he never fully settled into his role alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. As a result, he posted career-lows in minutes per game (25), field goal percentage (43.6%) and points per 36 minutes (18.4). Suffice to say, last season wasn’t the breakout junior season that he envisioned for himself.
This season has the potential to be different. Kuzma now has a year’s worth of experience playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and a year’s worth of experience playing under Vogel, who the Lakers brought on just last summer. Kuzma also got to participate in training camp, something that wasn’t an option for him last year as he rehabbed an injury sustained during his time with Team USA.
In other words, last season was an opportunity for Kuzma to learn as much as possible. Now, after using what he learned on the fly to contribute to the Lakers’ championship run, it seems like he’s ready to piece together everything he learned and make another leap.
“He’s figuring it out,” Davis said of Kuzma. “You know, when ‘Bron came two years ago, obviously ‘Bron got all of the attention and Kuz tried figure out how to work with that, and then with me coming in last year, he tried to figure that out. I think he’s doing a great job of finding his role on this team.
“We want him to come in and be aggressive. He’s making the right plays, he’s reading the defenses a lot better, even from last year. There’s some plays in this game where he made a great pass. So he’s continuing to learn the game and continuing to figure out his role with our team.
“You know, he developed his shot tremendously from last year to this year just in summertime, grinding. He’s been playing well this preseason and he’s only going to continue to get better. It’s gonna be a big year for him. He’s gonna play a bigger role for us this year, and we need him to continue to do what Kuz does.”
Kuzma didn’t have much time to improve in the offseason, as the Lakers only had an exactly two-month gap between their last game of the Finals and the first game of their preseason schedule, but the little that he was able to do in the small window was apparently enough to catch Davis’s attention.
“I’m not 100% sure what he was doing in that time, but, I mean, you can tell the difference. Either he was putting in work and came to camp ready and better than he was last year, or he held back on us last year and just kind of, you know, opened his game up more this year,” Davis said before letting out a laugh. “I’m not 100% sure.”
But to Davis, Kuzma’s seemingly sudden improvement is actually a culmination of all of the things he’s learned in his last three years in the NBA.
“The way he’s playing right now, the game slowed down for him, and when you get in that fourth year, the game kind of slows down: You read defenses better, you know your shot selection, you know where you’re get your shots, and he understands that now.
“He’s playing a lot better, he seems better on the defensive end. He guarded Kawhi the other game, he guarded Booker tonight, or started on Booker, so he’s getting those defensive reps as well. Like I said, he’s gonna be a big piece for us and he’s only gonna get better. It’s his fourth year. He’s playing extremely well. He’s finding his role and finding his niche with this team.”
Kuzma is eligible to sign a rookie contract extension with the Lakers this month, but the deadline for him and Los Angeles to strike a deal is Dec. 21. If neither side can come to an agreement by then — talks are reportedly “tabled” for now — Kuzma will become a restricted free agent next summer, and Davis thinks Kuzma has an opportunity to raise his value between now and then.
“If he can continue to play the right way, he’s going to have a great offseason, for sure, next summer,” Davis said.