The Lakers’ frustration over the suspension of the NBA season has been well-documented. Even though the players understand that the league is acting in the best interests of public safety, they genuinely want to play, especially since the Lakers appeared to be hitting another gear before the season was put on ice.
That narrative conveniently ignores what was currently the final game of the regular season against the Brooklyn Nets, but since the Lakers were unlikely to face the Nets in the postseason, that’s an acceptable omission.
James Worthy believes the shutdown came at a particularly inopportune time for the team’s youngest rotation player: Kyle Kuzma. It has been an up-and-down season for Kuzma as he adjusts to coming off the bench in a smaller overall role due to the presence of two superstars on the team. Worthy thinks Kuzma was finally starting to figure out how to play on a veteran team after spending the majority of his NBA career alongside young players, as he said on an episode of “Inside the Green Room”:
“Being out doesn’t help anybody, I don’t think, unless you’re injured. Kuz was a work in progress when he came here. He had a great Summer League, but he was playing with a bunch of young players — you know: Lonzo Ball, Randle. They didn’t really have veterans, so it was easy to blossom in that young generation movement. He had had a volume of shots, nobody was saying anything about taking 20 shots. Finally, you put him on a real team with veterans ... so he had to really learn how to play with veterans and it was a struggle because, ‘I’m not getting my shots now. Ingram went to New Orleans, he’s getting off. I’m not getting anything here.’ There’s a lot of things that go in your head that they will never tell you. I went through it, everyone goes through it. You have to get over that.
“Then, I started to see a little breakthrough. I started to see him understand his role a little bit, started getting some rebounds, started playing defense, so I think he was close. He was close to getting to the point where he could be a little more efficient, a little bit more consistent, and also let it go. There’s LeBron and AD. Know your role, play your role. I did it, and look at all the accolades I got. I could’ve gone to another team — the Clippers — and I could’ve been the man like Dominique, but you just have to be patient and I think patience is good for him. Understanding that you’re not the guy, you’re not the guy. Yes, you’re a great scorer — fit into the team and everything else will take care of itself, and I think sincerely Kuz was getting there.”
Kuzma was in the midst of his worst individual season statistically, and his declining 3-point percentage has gotten the most attention. It seemed like he was only comfortable when he had more control of the offense, like in a game against OKC when James and Davis both sat out, or a more recent contest against the Pelicans when Davis was unavailable. However, as Worthy notes, Kuzma was trying to expand his game to be expecting alongside both stars.
His rebounding percentage has improved as the season has gone along, most notably on the defensive glass, where that gives him an opportunity to grab and go. Kuzma may not have been effective in the halfcourt this season, but he is better with a head of steam. Kuzma’s defensive rating also improved in the last two months of the season, as his total net rating jumped form +4.1 before the All-Star break to +10.3 afterwards. The Lakers’ overall net rating declined in that same stretch, so Kuzma wasn’t merely boosted by team success.
The key with Kuzma is that he was always good next to James and Davis. His net rating with both of them on the floor increased from +17.9 before All-Star (already excellent) to +25.5 after the break, in an admittedly small sample size. The only player who was better next to the two stars was the GOAT Alex Caruso.
Lakers fans had every reason to be discouraged with Kuzma at points of the season, but he was generally a force for good on the team, and he was starting to amplify the lineups around him. If the season hadn’t stopped, there’s a good chance Kuzma would have had some of the team success Worthy had in his career.