Over the next month, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel will slowly integrate Markieff Morris into his rotation, and no one player has the potential to benefit from the late-season addition of Morris more than Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma has struggled to adapt to his role off of the bench this season, and most of his struggles can be attributed to the fact that he’s been treated like a stretch-4. While Kuzma does some of his best work with the ball out on the perimeter, it’s not because he’s a lights out 3-point shooter. In fact, with the exception of his stellar rookie season, Kuzma has never shot above 35% from behind the arc — not even in his three seasons at the University of Utah.
With a true stretch-4 like Morris now in the fold, Kuzma is expected to spend the majority of minutes out on the wing, where he’ll be able to handle the ball and create his own shot more often. Morris and Kuzma have only played 24 minutes together so far, but we’re already starting to see some positive signs from Kuzma in his new role.
On Sunday, Kuzma was tasked with guarding All-Star forward Jayson Tatum, and he moved his feet well enough for his size and length to make an impact. Then, on Thursday, Kuzma scored 18 points against the Golden State Warriors and posted his second-highest box plus-minus (+23) of the season with most of his minutes coming at the 3.
Before the game, Morris told reporters that he’s liked what he’s seen from Kuzma so far, but he knows that Kuzma still has room to grow (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“He’s gonna be special. Kuz is young right now, he’s still figuring everything out. Third year, he’s playing like an eight or ninth year player. He’s got some stuff to figure out... but I’m excited for his future for sure.”
And while it hasn’t always seemed like it this this season, Vogel said he’s committed to helping Kuzma with that growth:
“He just got more minutes tonight. We’ve been calling the same type of actions for him of late to try to get him more in scoring positions, and continue to get him comfortable in his role, and he was terrific tonight.”
There’s definitely a correlation between how much Kuzma plays and how much he scores. Of the seven game’s he scored at least 20 points this season, he played at least 30 minutes in four of them. On the season, Kuzma is averaging a career-low 24.5 minutes per game.
There also seems to be a correlation between Kuzma’s production and LeBron James’ presence. Kuzma’s season-high for points in a game came on Jan. 11 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a game James sat out with flu-like symptoms. James was also sidelined for Thursday’s game against the Warriors.
That’s not to say James makes Kuzma actively worse, but there’s something to the idea that Kuzma plays his best when he’s the first or second option on offense. When he shares the floor with James and Anthony Davis, he obviously isn’t that. So, if the Lakers want to squeeze everything they can out of Kuzma this season, they should probably start by letting him run the second unit, which is easier for him to do if he’s playing out on the wing.
Kuzma might not be the foundational piece that everyone thought he was going to be after his impressive rookie season, but he’s still a valuable player in the right role, and it sounds like the Lakers are looking for that role for him — and if Kuzma can hit his stride before the postseason, it’s hard to imagine them losing a playoff series.
Here’s to hoping for the best, or — to be more specific — Kuzma’s best.