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It’s now or never for Kyle Kuzma

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Kyle Kuzma may have some lofty expectations to live up to in Orlando, but the young Lakers forward is in a perfect position to finally meet them.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Los Angeles Lakers played the Clippers on Christmas Day, they lost 111-106, but the game wasn’t a total waste. Not only did Frank Vogel’s side show that they were capable of dictating the tempo of the game, but it showed that LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma could dominate in a game together.

James and Davis have had plenty of 20-plus point games together, but there have only been two games in which James, Davis and Kuzma have each scored at least 20 points: the game against the Clippers on Christmas Day, and the following game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

Unfortunately, in the very next game against Dallas Mavericks, Kuzma scored zero points in 26 minutes of action. Those high peaks and deep valleys have defined Kuzma’s junior campaign with the Lakers, and made it hard for anyone to buy into him being the team’s third star, something he himself said he had aspirations of being this season.

As the season’s progressed, though, Kuzma’s shifted the focus away from himself and expressed a desire to play winning basketball. After practice last week, Kuzma reiterated that point.

“Honestly, I don’t even think about that and I don’t even care about it,” Kuzma said of his status as the Lakers’ third star. “It’s all about this team game and that’s we approach it. Obviously I can score and get my own bucket, but we’re just trying to play the right way. That’s more of media people just trying to push it. I’m just being myself and doing me.”

The issue with Kuzma playing that sort of limited role is that the Lakers have a handful of veterans players that can do the little things that Kuzma’s built his entire game around this season, and two of them — Jared Dudley and Markieff Morris — can do them better and play his primary position. What Kuzma needs to do in order to help his team is actually be himself; not the watered down version of himself he’s created as a result of his underwhelming season. That’s especially true in the absence of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo.

Fortunately, he seems to be getting back on the right track in Orlando.

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Kuzma came back from the NBA’s four-month hiatus with a renewed sense of confidence and, more importantly, a healthy body. The combination of those two things have resulted in Kuzma getting a good amount of buzz in the Lakers’ mini training camp, most notably from his head coach Frank Vogel, who said earlier this month that Kuzma has been “dominating the floor” during the team’s scrimmages.

While we didn’t see that in the Lakers’ first scrimmage game against the Dallas Mavericks, Kuzma looked incredible in their win over the Orlando Magic on Saturday. In 30:27, Kuzma led all scorers with 25 points on 10-13 shooting from the field, including 5-7 shooting from behind the arc. He also contributed 7 rebounds.

Granted, it was a scrimmage game against one of the lesser teams in the bubble and means nothing in the grand scheme of things, but Kuzma looked as sharp as he has all season, and Vogel is confident that he’ll be able to sustain that production going forward.

“What he did today, he did all through our restart training camp,” Vogel said on Sunday. “I’m just really excited about what the restart is going to look like for him. After starting the regular season in a different role, with injuries, not quite in rhythm and just battling some of those things, to have a fresh mindset of being healthy and a second training camp really seems to have benefited him.

“We saw him play exceptional tonight, and I just think that’s going to be a huge piece for us going into the playoffs.”

Kuzma missed the entirety of the Lakers’ actual training camp at the start of the season due to an ankle injury he suffered while competing for a spot on Team USA’s FIBA Basketball World Cup roster. He also missed the first four games of the regular season as a result of that injury.

Had Kuzma started the season completely healthy, Vogel believes he would have looked as good to start the season as he does now.

“It’s tough to have your legs under you when you don’t have the training camp that everybody else has,” Vogel said. “For him to be able to work with our group all the way through this restart, like I said, this is benefitting him and this is what I had hoped for before he was injured for the first training camp.”

“It was super important because after (Team) USA, I couldn’t be on the court for two and a half months,” Kuzma added. “I had to just sit at home, shoot from a chair, so I wasn’t really necessarily able to play right away, especially lifting weights. I couldn’t bear any type of weight lower-body-wise to get my legs ready for the season. So that four months was good for me, just getting in the gym, lifting heavy, and getting ready before training camp. (It) definitely helped.”

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

A big benefit of Kuzma having fresh legs is that his shooting has the potential to improve. For the season, Kuzma is shooting a career-low 29.7% from behind the arc on 4.4 attempts per game. Since the Lakers arrived in Orlando, though, he’s apparently looked more similar to how he did during his rookie season, when he shot 36.6% from 3-point range on 5.6 attempts per game.

“He’s making a higher rate of them,” Vogel said. “During the hiatus, the pandemic, guys were not allowed to do anything but shoot the basketball. You can deduct that in all the 1-on-0 shooting workouts that he made a tweak or two here with his shot, like all shooters will do. (That) could have benefited him.

“The catch-and-shoot variety he got tonight, obviously those are the best ones. We want to minimize how much we’re shooting off the bounce, but punish if teams go under, and we’ll take them however we can get them as long as they’re open. And hopefully we see improved consistency on that front with Kyle.”

Kuzma said he made “a few tweaks” to his shot on his own during the four-month hiatus, but that it was “nothing crazy.” Those tweaks could end up being the difference for Kuzma going forward, but Vogel thinks his newfound knack for hitting 3-pointers is more of a testament to his commitment to improving.

“He just works,” Vogel said. “He just works on his shot. All of our guys work on their shot, try little different subtleties to improve, but it’s the repetition that he puts in. That’s the reason that he’s making shots at a higher rate, not any types of tweaks. And in terms of any tweaks to his game, we’ve always just been on him ... about reading defenses and just making the right play.”

Kuzma’s not interested in just being a 3-point shooter, though. At his best, Kuzma plays like a big guard, which is to say he operates the best with the ball in his hands. On a team with two ball-dominant players in Rajon Rondo and LeBron James, Kuzma hasn’t been able to do much of that. But with Rondo sidelined for the next month or so, and Bradley out for the remainder of the season, Kuzma will have more opportunities to handle the ball and create his own offense, which is something that he’s looking forward to.

“It just allows me to be a playmaker and have the ball in my hands instead of standing in the corner and being a spacer,” Kuzma said. “It just allows me to be myself and play free.

With four months to recover physically and mentally, and a golden opportunity to prove that he can lead the second unit, there’s never been a better time for Kuzma to show that he has star potential, and the Lakers have never needed Kuzma to be that for them more than they do now.

If Kuzma doesn’t figure it out in Orlando, it could mark the end of his time in Los Angeles, or at least the beginning of the end, given that he becomes extension-eligible this summer. He may say he’s not worried about that, but it’s the reality of how things are.

In other words, it’s now or never for Kuzma to contribute to winning while being himself.

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