Kyle Kuzma made a name for himself in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers through scoring the ball at a high level. At the end of the 2017-18 season, Kuzma ranked second among rookies in scoring with 16.1 points per game on 45% shooting from the field, including 36.6% shooting from behind the arc. If he was going to be a star in the NBA, it was going to be because of his offense.
Since then, his offensive production has slowly fallen off, and this season has been his worst in that regard. Through 59 games for the Lakers, Kuzma has averaged 12.6 points per game on 43.4% shooting from the field, both of which are career-lows. He also has the worst offensive RAPTOR rating (-2.2) of anyone on the team, per FiveThirtyEight.
Going into the season’s restart, the hope was that Kuzma would return with fresh legs and improve his efficiency from the field — particularly from 3-point range. While that has been the case thus far, his offense has taken a backseat to his impressive defense.
Starting with the Lakers’ game against the LA Clippers on July 30, Kuzma has looked more engaged than he ever has on the defensive end and his defensive fundamentals have noticeably improved. He’s looked so good that head coach Frank Vogel has trusted him to guard the other team’s best player during stretches of the team’s seeding schedule, including smaller guards like Chris Paul and James Harden.
Kuzma might not have to guard Paul or Harden in a playoff series, but he’s committed to doing whatever he can to help the Lakers on the defensive end. In fact, after the Lakers’ loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday, Kuzma said that he’s only concerned with that end of the floor.
“Defense, that’s my only focus,” Kuzma said. “Not just when they’re playing, but even when they’re not playing. I’m just trying to defend, I’m trying to just make an impact. My scoring doesn’t matter.
“Coach says it all the time: He wants us to be a well-rounded team that moves the ball outside of our superstars. I never judge my performances no more off of trying to score and having a certain amount of points because that’s not the situation I’m in. The situation I’m in is trying to figure out a niche, and defending at a high level and being a great teammate. That’s what I can control, so that’s kind of what I do.”
But Kuzma’s newfound respect for the art of defense seems to have energized him to play harder on offense too. Through the five seeding games, Kuzma has averaged 14.4 points on 46% shooting from the field, including 46.2% shooting from the 3-point territory, the latter of which is a team-high.
It’s been a long on a turbulent ride, but it seems Kuzma has finally found his role with this year’s Lakers team, and he credits the amount of work he’s put in throughout the season.
“I love the game of basketball,” Kuzma said. “It’s my passion and I love being in the gym and putting in work. That’s just a product of it. As you guys have seen, I’m obviously a little bit healthier, but I’ve had time to really just put in work. That’s what I do. That’s in my DNA.”
Whether it’s on defense or offense, Kuzma’s shown he’s capable of helping the Lakers in a meaningful way, which isn’t something that could have been said with any confidence before the season started. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope he doesn’t lose that hunger to get better, and that he stays healthy.