It’s fair to say that Kyle Kuzma has not exactly been known for his defense during his first three seasons with the Lakers.
Los Angeles has actually only been slightly worse defensively with Kuzma on the floor this season (by 0.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com) and he’s clearly been trying harder, but his reputation as a guy who is too often upright and prone to blow-bys has been hard to shake, and exacerbated by the fact that for most of the year, he wasn’t doing enough offensively to distract from his issues on the other end.
But while that’s a reputation Kuzma has, it’s not one he’s worried about.
“Once we got here, we don’t think about what happened in the past. This is like a restart,” Kuzma said on his postgame Zoom call with the media on Thursday night. “A new start.”
That last part especially proved true for Kuzma’s defense against the Clippers. It’s not the first time he’s been excellent on that end this year — his game against Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics is one that quickly comes to mind as another instance of it — but it’s not a reputation that’s stuck with him.
But in the Lakers’ first game of the NBA restart and on a nationally televised stage, Kuzma showed everyone tuning in for the first time in months just how solid he can be on that end of the floor while helping the Lakers get a 103-101 win against the LA Clippers on a night they played far from their best basketball. His effort and tenacity on that end of the floor left Lakers head coach Frank Vogel impressed.
“He was exceptional tonight. He’s had some other strong moments this year, so I don’t know if it was the best, but it’s right up there with one of those,” Vogel said. “In particular when he was switched onto Kawhi, he had some really good possessions that helped us get stops.”
Vogel is not wrong. Kuzma was as locked in as he’s been all year while guarding the Clippers’ superstar he’s said he looks up to, and who grew up using the same trainer Kuzma uses now. He utilized active feet and hands coupled with solid positioning to make life difficult on Leonard whenever he ended up on him, to the point that one of the best isolation bucket-getters in the league was trying to get Kuzma switched off of him at various points.
Defensive field goal percentage is a somewhat-limited stat, especially when used for a single game, but it reflects what the eye test would say about Kuzma’s defense in this one. Players guarded by him went 4-11 from the field (36.4%), which is significantly better than the 45.5% Kuzma has allowed on the season, according to NBA.com.
“He works really hard on that end. Certain matchups are more favorable for him, but he was terrific tonight,” Vogel said. “If he can perform like that on the defensive end, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
For Kuzma, that last part is all that ultimately matters to him.
“I liked just how we played as a team. Everyone defended. Everyone did their job,” Kuzma said. “And we got a win.”