With Anthony Davis set to miss at least the next 2-3 weeks for the Lakers (and potentially even longer as the team is cautious with his Achilles issues), Kyle Kuzma appears to be the odds-on favorite to start for the team in Davis’ absence. The fourth-year forward has started in all but one of Davis’ previous absences, including when Davis couldn’t return for the second half of the Lakers’ loss to the Nuggets. Doing so for several weeks would be a new role for Kuzma, but he’s used to new roles.
In Kuzma’s rookie season he came off the bench until he played his way into the starting unit, and he alternated between starter and reserve the rest of his All-Rookie First-Team debut campaign. His second season it only took him two games to earn a spot with the starters, a role he didn’t relinquish the rest of the year, but he was in a new situation again, playing alongside LeBron James and learning to be a secondary scorer. In his third season he started just nine games, again being forced to adapt to a complementary role behind both James and Davis.
All the change and context go even deeper than that, but in short, Kuzma has been forced to blend in to a variety of different roles and take on a ton of different responsibilities over his time with the Lakers, serving as a 6’10 chameleon to varying degrees of success. He told Bill Oram of The Athletic that how to do so is the main lesson he’s taken away from his career so far:
“I’ve been in the league for four years,” Kuzma said last week in an interview with The Athletic, “and I think the No. 1 thing I’ve learned is adapt to survive.”
Kuzma’s latest evolutionary developments have come in three main forms: His increased focus on rebounding, his consistency regardless of his role and his improved defense.
On the first front, Kuzma says he’s no longer trying to be the Lakers’ third star, and his teammates have noticed his commitment to doing the dirty work. Rather than just standing in the corner, Kuzma is attacking the glass, rebounding 8.3% of the Lakers’ misses while he’s on the floor, by far a career high (his previous high was 3.9%) Among Lakers, he only trails Montrezl Harrell (10.4%). Kuzma is also averaging career-highs in defensive rebounding percentage (18.6%) and total rebound percentage (13.6%), per Basketball-Reference. He’s not Dennis Rodman, but short of dying his hair again, he’s doing his best cosplay.
Perhaps just as importantly as Kuzma’s commitment on the glass, however, is that as we covered here yesterday, #StarterKuz and #BenchKuz are no longer two totally different players:
And for all the talk of #StarterKuz, per 36 minutes, Kuzma’s scoring average this season has been basically the same (16.4 ppg as a starter, 15.6 off the bench) no matter his role, albeit on greater efficiency as a starter, shooting 49.3% from the field and 38.7% from three vs. 43.7% and 35% off the bench, respectively. His shot attempts per 36 minutes (13.9) are also exactly the same whether he starts or sits.
Kuzma’s rebounds and assists per 36 minutes are slightly higher while coming off the bench, but it’s a small enough difference that it’s clear he’s mostly focused on just playing a role for the team vs. trying to show he’s the third star when Davis is out. The Lakers may need a pinch more of the latter quality if Davis misses extended time, but for now, it appears that these two will bear the bulk of the increased responsibility while the Lakers’ All-Star misses time.
Making it all the more impressive is that Kuzma has done all of this while playing — and at times, guarding — three positions. He’s morphed from an actively bad defender to one that, according to InStat tracking data, has ranked in the 92nd percentile in the NBA in help defense and defending off of screens, in the 95th percentile at defending the pick and roll, 98th percentile at defending drives, and in the 99th percentile at defending in isolations since Frank Vogel began coaching him last season.
After watching all of Kuzma’s isolation defensive possessions from this season, it’s clear he (obviously) doesn’t get a stop every time, isn’t always guarding the best opposing player and is better in late-clock situations. But he’s had some good sequences against a variety of different types of scoring threats, and has really put the clamps on in a few moments.
Here are a few highlights:
He told Oram that such versatility has been a goal for him since he entered the NBA:
“Ever since I came in the league, people always kind of ask me what position am I, whatever. I always would say I’m just a basketball player,” Kuzma said. “I think I’ve shown that type of versatility in my entire career. From first and second year to scoring the basketball, shooting it, almost averaging 20 a game and taking on and accepting different roles in order for what the team needed. … That’s just me kind of maturing as a player but also still trying to put it all together when I can.”
Kuzma has done that on both ends so far this season, and with Davis out, he’ll have to do so one more time. It’s a good thing he’s had plenty of practice.