It’s been a year of highs and lows for Kyle Kuzma. In June, Kuzma survived Team USA’s roster cuts for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China, and the blockbuster Anthony Davis trade that sent three of his Lakers teammates to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Then, in August, Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that forced him to leave Team USA. The injury kept him sidelined for the entirety of the preseason and the first four games of the regular season. Any momentum he had built up to that point quickly faded.
Since then, it’s felt like Kuzma’s been playing catch-up with the rest of the team, and he’s struggled gain any ground. Through 54 appearances for the Lakers this season, Kuzma has averaged 12.5 points on 43.2% shooting from the field, including 29.7% shooting from behind the arc, while averaging 24.6 minutes per game. He’s also posted the worst box plus-minus (-3.5) on the team this season, according to Basketball Reference.
When the Lakers resume their season in Orlando this month, Kuzma will have the unique opportunity of starting fresh in the middle of the season, and unlike the actual start of the season, the 24-year-old forward feels like he’s in good health.
“I feel unbelievable health-wise,” Kuzma said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “I feel great. Throughout the season had some injuries, playing through injuries, but the break allowed me to get physically 100%. Mentally, I’ve been reading, meditating and painting a lot, just preparing my mind for the playoffs. I feel great.”
Kuzma is one of the three players on the Lakers’ roster (not including two-way players) that has never played in the NBA Playoffs. He came close last season, but due to a combination of injuries, poor roster management and trade rumors that wreaked havoc, the Lakers fell short of expectations.
This season, the Lakers are viewed one of the favorites to win the title with a record of 49-14, and with the type of year Kuzma’s had, he knows better than to take the moment he’s in for granted.
“It means a lot, and that’s why I’m taking it so serious,” Kuzma said. “Like I said, through this whole quarantine I’ve just been preparing my mind and my body, just getting ready for this opportunity. Not many players have opportunities to win rings, to have a chance in my third year, has a chance to really make moves in my career moving forward, and that’s important.
“Guys can go across this league and average 20, 25, and just never win. I don’t want that. I want a legacy, to do something that as a kid I always wanted to do.”
With LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the Lakers’ roster this season, Kuzma doesn’t need to score 20-25 points per game for his team to be successful. However, when Kuzma’s given the opportunity, he can put up those types of numbers, as evidenced by the 20.3 points per game he’s averaged in seven starts this season.
That opportunity might not come as often as it came in his first two season with the Lakers, but he’s confident that he’ll be called on again — and when he is, he’ll be ready.
“I just look at Kawhi Leonard as an example,” Kuzma said. “He was a Spur for 3, 4, 5 years or whatever it was, waiting his turn behind Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and then did his thing. I just take the pressure on myself and try to get better every day, stay focused on what I can control, and (know) my time is coming.”
In the meantime, Kuzma has to find a way to be an impactful player when he’s not one of the first two options on offense, and that starts with his role in the second unit. The Lakers’ bench unit is ranked middle of the pack in the NBA in scoring and scoring efficiency, and as the player that leads the bench in field goal attempts (10.1) and usage percentage (22%), Kuzma isn’t blameless in that.
Fortunately for the Lakers, they’ll have more reinforcements on their bench in Orlando thanks to the additions of Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, both of whom are unapologetic shooters if nothing else. Kuzma believes Waiters or Smith could bring a much-needed breath of fresh air to the second unit, and bring the best out of other players.
“I think throughout the season we’ve kind of gotten better and better as a unit,” Kuzma said. “We’ve had a lot of inconsistent play from our second unit, but I think having one of those guys step up is only going to help other people step up and be able to contribute.”
Kuzma hasn’t been the Lakers’ third star like he and many of the team’s fans expected him to be this season, but nothing about the way he’s played or acted has made it seem like he’s any less motivated to help his team win. For a player that had such a big role on the team in first two seasons, that takes a great deal of maturity.
It’s hard to imagine that Kuzma will look too different from the way he looked before the season was suspended, but if by some odd chance everything starts clicking for him in Orlando, the Lakers will be a tough out in the postseason. Here’s to hoping for the best.