Kyle Kuzma got his first starting nod of the season on Sunday and he didn’t disappoint. In 29:09 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kuzma led the Los Angeles Lakers to a blowout win with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from behind the arc, in addition to 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks to his stat line. He was fantastic.
However, the way in which Kuzma got his points was more impressive than his total. Unlike in year’s past, Kuzma didn’t force anything on offense; all of his shots came were in rhythm, and within the flow of the team’s offense. And when the defense took away the looks he was getting in the first half, he became more of a playmaker, which isn’t something he would have done in his first two seasons, when his numbers stood out more.
Kuzma may not be a complete player yet, but he’s closer to that than he was a year ago, and Frank Vogel has enjoyed watching his growth to this point.
“Kuz has really become a hell of a player,” Vogel said. “Playing in the role that he played in last year, where there were games where he wasn’t really that involved in the offense and had to impact the game in other ways, I think in the long run is really, really, really going to help his game.
“So many young players, they come into this league, in different environments, and they’re asked to carry a big load offensively. And when you’re doing that, sometimes you shortcut some of the other parts of the game and Kuz has really worked on his defense, he’s really worked on his rebounding, his cutting, his running the floor and all those types of things.”
Whether or not Kuzma appreciated what Vogel tried to do for him in the moment is unknown, but he appreciates it now, in his fourth season.
“Obviously, last year, I was just trying to find ways to find extra minutes and scrap, and knowing that, even now, it’s not about scoring with myself because, just the firepower that we have and the overall makeup of my team, it’s never really about scoring anymore,” Kuzma said. “So I just try to find ways to impact the game and just take shots when I have them.
“It’s made me a better player, so it’s really just about looking at the forrest instead of the tree ahead of you — treating it as a marathon and just, year-by-year, trying to add to your game whether or not the stats reflect it. I’m just improving and adding it all up year-by-year.”
But Kuzma also thinks Sunday was a product of him getting more getting more opportunities on the court.
“Obviously, we’ve got two superstars,” Kuzma said. “But when one of those guys are out, I just have more opportunity... Every time I have an opportunity, I just try to seize the moment and take it full on, and in a season like this, playing back-to-backs, coach and the organization being conservative with LeBron and AD, it just allows me to, on those nights, work on my game and put to life, with game reps, what I work on every day rather than when they’re playing and we play a different style of basketball.”
Fortunately for Kuzma, those opportunities are expected to be more available to him this season than they were last season because of the compromising circumstances the Lakers will be playing in this season. And if this season is going to be about who the “next man up is,” the Lakers have to like their chances with this version of Kuzma.