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Kyle Kuzma worked hard for his moment

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After a rough first half of the season, Kyle Kuzma is showing his value for the Lakers.

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Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Since the Los Angeles Lakers restarted their season last month, Kyle Kuzma has arguably been their most consistent player. Sure LeBron James and Anthony Davis have had bigger nights than Kuzma, but Kuzma’s energy an effort hasn’t waned like theirs has. From day one of the season’s restart, Kuzma’s played like he has something to prove, and perhaps he does.

Before the season was suspended, Kuzma didn’t look like the Lakers’ third-best player. On some nights, he hardly looked like an NBA player. Now, after four months to recover both physically and mentally, Kuzma has looked more comfortable than he’s ever looked with this team and his teammates have noticed the difference.

“I think the best thing about the the time that we had off is that Kuz got an opportunity to get healthy,” James said after the Lakers’ win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday. “You know, he was hampered with his foot injury and ankle injury throughout a lot of the season so he was always playing catch up. It allowed himself to get healthy and he put a lot of work.

“His confidence is soaring, he’s playing some good ball but more importantly, defensively he’s just been locked in and just taking the challenge on any given night, no matter if it’s his opponent or anyone scoring. It doesn’t matter. He’s taking the challenge and that’s a step in the right direction of his growth.”

Frank Vogel also noted how much better Kuzma has looked since the team arrived to Orlando, and said it’s made it easier for Kuzma’s teammates to lean on him.

“He’s had more poise about his game as of late, and obviously he’s shooting the ball extremely well from the perimeter so guys are looking for him on the 3-point line,” Vogel said. “When he’s making plays, whether it’s in pin-downs or pick-and-rolls in a two-man action, making solid reads, we can call his number more often and show more trust.”

That trust isn’t something that Kuzma felt he had from his teammates earlier in the season, but he understood why: he wasn’t making shots at a high clip, he wasn’t playing consistent defense and he wasn’t making the reads he is now. In order to gain that trust, Kuzma put the work in during the NBA’s hiatus, and he was rewarded with more touches when the team scrimmaged in practice.

On the surface, that might not seem all that significant, but it was the difference between the Lakers winning and not on Monday night.

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

With 4.5 seconds left on the shot clock, the Lakers needed a basket in order to avoid overtime against the Nuggets for the second time this season. They could have gone to Anthony Davis in the post and tried to get a basket that way, or given the ball back to LeBron James out of the inbound, but they didn’t — Vogel drew up a play for Kuzma out of the timeout because he knew he could make it.

How? Because Kuzma had been making that same shot in practice for weeks.

“Every time we ran that play in practice, I kind of hit the shot so they kind of just went to me,” Kuzma said. “Obviously, the play nine out of 10 times is going to LeBron, but they called my number and it’s all about trust.”

The ball left Kuzma’s hands with 2.3 seconds left on the shot clock and it found the bottom of the net to give the Lakers a 3-point cushion with 0.4 seconds left on the game clock. No nerves, no hesitation; just one fluid motion over the extended arms of Bol Bol.

“Jesus could in front of me and I’d probably still shoot,” Kuzma said. “It don’t really matter to me.”

Kuzma has never been one to lack confidence — it’s what made him so popular in his rookie season with the Lakers — but that confidence wasn’t as apparent when he struggled earlier in the season, and understandably so: Kuzma set high expectations for himself and he didn’t live up to them. While it’s probably premature to say Kuzma has succeeded in his goal of being the Lakers’ third star, James made a bold statement about Kuzma on Monday.

“In order for us to win a championship, he has to be our third-best player,” James said. “And if I’m struggling or AD’s struggling, he has to be our second-best player on any given night. We can’t we can’t win a championship if he doesn’t play well.”

Vogel was less eager to single out one of his players, but he did acknowledge Kuzma’s importance to the team, especially in their seeding games.

“We’re going to need all of our guys, but Kyle has that ability to really give length and athleticism and just a hard-playing approach on the defensive end while being able to get hot offensively,” Vogel said. “We can’t rely on our two big guys to carry the whole load. Its a team game and he’s continuing to make the right reads and make the right plays. There’s been a big jump in that since the restart in his game from where he was at from where we left off. He can be huge for us.”

Vogel said Kuzma will likely go back to the bench once Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is healthy, citing the need for two guards that can defend the quick and shifty guards in the Western Conference. Kuzma believes he deserves to be a starer, but his role with the team isn’t his main priority right now; winning a championship is.

“I’m starting on most teams in this league and everyone knows it,” Kuzma said. “It just so happens I play behind the best-two players in the NBA, so it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just trying to fill in my role, trying to find a niche and trying to win because that’s really all that matters.”

During his time with the Lakers, Kuzma has always been good about saying the right things. Now, he’s doing them too and everyone is better for it, third star or not. If he continues to do that, the Lakers will be in good shape going into the playoffs.

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