With just 20 games left in the NBA regular season, Kyle Kuzma hasn’t proven that he’s on the cusp of becoming a reliable 3-point shooter. In his last 15 appearances for the Lakers, Kuzma’s shot an abysmal 19.6% from behind the arc on 56 total 3-point attempts, and for the season, he’s shooting 29.9% from 3-point range, which is the sixth-worst percentage of anyone that’s attempted at least 200 3-pointers this season.
It’s slowly starting to seem like his rookie season — where he shot 36.6% from behind the arc — was just an outlier, because prior to that, he had never shot above 35% from 3-point range, and he hasn’t done it since.
However, just because Kuzma might be a bad shooter doesn’t mean he can’t help this year’s Lakers team.
Since before the season started, the Lakers have had one glaring hole on their roster: A big wing that can guard the perimeter. With the addition of a true stretch-4 in Markieff Morris last month, Kuzma has had the opportunity to be that wing defender for the Lakers, and the results have been mostly positive so far, despite the fact that Kuzma has a reputation for being a defensive liability.
In the seven games Morris has been with the Lakers, Kuzma has posted a defensive rating of 95.4, which is 9.3 points better than his season average, and the second-highest defensive rating on the team during that stretch (minimum 15 minutes played).
“When I have the opportunity to guard people my size or lower, I’m more keyed in and it allows me just to use my body and my agility and other things instead of getting pounded in the chest,” Kuzma said of his progress after the Lakers beat the Clippers on Sunday.
Kuzma’s first big test came against the Boston Celtics last month, when he was tasked with guarding Jayson Tatum. In the first play we’re going to look at, Kuzma picks up Tatum at the 3-point line, shuffles his feet to get onto Tatum’s left side, and then puts his chest into Tatum’s shoulder to force the turnover.
A few minutes later, Kuzma picks up Tatum from the 3-point line again, but this time, Tatum goes behind-the-back to create space between him and Kuzma. Still, Kuzma applies enough pressure on Tatum to disrupt the shot, and then uses his length to get the block.
The biggest change in the way Kuzma’s played perimeter defense this season compared to last season is the way he’s moved his feet. Last season, Kuzma would get in a low defensive stance, but he wouldn’t shuffle his feet — he’d kind of skip. This season, Kuzma’s shuffling his feet side-to-side, and doing a better job of attacking the right angles so he’s not constantly chasing the guy with the ball.
In this next play from Sunday’s game against the Clippers, Kuzma’s caught chasing a smaller Landry Shamet, but he’s able to recover because of his length, and the size of his steps compared to Shamet. It also didn’t hurt that Montrezl Harrell slipped out of the screen early.
The next quarter, Shamet gets Kuzma alone on the right wing, but, like he did with Tatum, Kuzma puts his chest into Shamet’s shoulder and forces Shamet to shoot over his long arms. Unsurprisingly, Kuzma gets the block.
Against some wings, Kuzma’s length isn’t going to be enough, nor is his slight frame. Against most guards, though, Kuzma’s going to win that matchup almost every time with that type of effort. That same effort is why he had so much success against a stronger Russell Westbrook in the Lakers’ game against the Houston Rockets in January.
The Lakers obviously need Kuzma to be a much better shooter than he’s been this season, but it’s encouraging to see that he’s found other ways to be impactful, especially because it’s on the defensive end. If Kuzma can figure out his 3-point shot before the start of the postseason, he could be something close to the 3-and-D wing the front office coveted at the trade deadline.
Kuzma might not be the player everyone wanted him to be going into the season, but there’s a chance for him to be the player the Lakers need right now. Hopefully he continues to show growth on both ends of the floor in his new role, and helps the second unit build on the progress they’ve made.