Two season ago, Kyle Kuzma looked like a star on the rise. In his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he averaged 16.1 points per game on 45% shooting from the field, including 36.6% shooting from behind the arc. He followed that promising rookie campaign with a productive sophomore season, upping his average to 18.7 points per game on a higher field goal percentage (45.6%).
This season, Kuzma has barely looked like an NBA player.
A lot has been made about the “little things” Kuzma has done to be a complementary piece to LeBron James and Anthony Davis this season — from his effort on the glass and willingness to defend — but he doesn’t do those little things well enough to make an impact on the team consistently, nor does he do them better than his veteran teammates. The latter was true even before Markieff Morris signed with the Lakers in February.
With Morris and Jared Dudley on the roster, the Lakers have two true “stretch fours,” something Kuzma has struggled to be for the team, with the exception of his standout rookie season. The Lakers also added two players that can create their own offense in Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith. Kuzma has shown he can be effective with the ball in his hands, but both Waiters and Smith are more proven, albeit at a different position.
If Kuzma doesn’t want to get lost in the Lakers’ revamped roster, he needs to excel in two areas that he’s not very strong in: 3-point shooting and defense.
Across the board, Kuzma’s having the best defensive season of his career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s been good on that end — he hasn’t. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers’ defense is 1.5 points better per 100 possessions with Kuzma off of the floor. Additionally, Kuzma’s posted a defensive RAPTOR of -0.3, according to FiveThirtyEight. Neither of those numbers are horrible, but it speaks to the idea that he’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none.
Where Kuzma’s really struggled this season is on offense. Through 54 games, including seven starts, Kuzma has shot a career-low 43.2% from the field, including an abysmal 29.7% from 3-point range. Even his 2-point field goal percentage has fallen from 55.3% to 52.3%.
His overall struggles on offense can be partially attributed to the fact he plays more minutes per game with Rajon Rondo (15.5) than any other player on the team, but his shooting struggles are on him alone. Of the 117 “open” 3-point attempts Kuzma has attempted this season, he’s only made 31 (26.5%), according to NBA.com. His “wide open” 3-point attempts are only marginally better at 36.6% on 101 attempts.
The shot Kuzma’s struggled with the most this season is the above the break 3-pointer, and it’s not particularly close. Kuzma has attempted 182 above the break 3-pointers this season and only made 44. Ironically, that’s where he’s attempted the majority of his shots this year, followed by the restricted area, where he’s converted 72.3% of his shot attempts.
If you’ve made it this far and thought to yourself, “wow, Kuzma just isn’t good,” you’re not entirely wrong. To say he’s a lost cause would be inaccurate, though.
At his best, Kuzma is a legitimate No. 2 option on offense, and he showed that earlier this season, when he scored 36 points for the Lakers in their win against the Oklahoma City Thunder with LeBron James and Anthony Davis sidelined. Kuzma has scored 20 points in eight games this season — Davis was inactive for five of them. The Lakers are 7-1 when Kuzma scores at least 20 points.
The problem is that the Lakers don’t need Kuzma to be their second-best scorer on a team with James and Davis — two of the 10-best players in the NBA. What they do need him to be is a reliable No. 3 option, which is just to say they need him to be a better complement to James and Davis. While him doing the little things he’s been doing is a start, he needs to dominate in a way that allows him to separate himself from the likes of Dudley and Morris, and he’s already done it a few times this season.
The one game the Lakers lost when Kuzma scored 20 points was against the LA Clippers on Christmas Day. In that game, Kuzma scored 25 points on 8-11 shooting from the field, including 4-9 shooting from behind the arc. He finished the game with a team-high box plus-minus of +10.9 in a game the Lakers lost by five. That’s good.
Most of Kuzma’s standout performances have come in games with some meaning to them. For example, in the first game the Lakers played after Kobe Bryant’s death, Kuzma tallied 17 points and 15 rebounds. He played just as hard – if not harder – than anyone on the team that night.
Kuzma also locked in for the Lakers’ matchup against the Boston Celtics in February, where he scored 16 points and played stout defense on Jayson Tatum during key stretches of the game. The defensive ability he showed in that game, in conjunction with the efficiency in which he’s converted his corner 3-point attempts this season (50%), has given fans a glimmer of hope that he can be the “3-and-D” wing the team has needed since the start of the season.
If Kuzma continues to play his most inspired basketball when the stakes are the highest and the lights are the brightest, he could surprise a lot of people in the postseason. However, if he looks as lost as he has most of this season, he could see his role diminish, and his time with the team come to an end in the offseason. He’s not the first high-usage four to struggle as a third option in a LeBron James Big Three, but it will be on him to find a way to fit in, not fit out, when the playoffs begin.