When the Lakers beat the Atlanta Hawks to finish up their seven-game road trip the other night, Kyle Kuzma rushed back to the locker room and opened up his Instagram app. He had a message he wanted to send:
kuz not having it. haha. i love it. pic.twitter.com/nrVaDAEADC— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) February 2, 2021
Kuzma shared that same clip on his Twitter account with the same caption before later deleting it, but the Lakers’ tweet is still up, so we can see the defensive sequence he was proud enough of to highlight on both platforms. In it, he puts the absolute clamps on Trae Young, jittering around like a waterbug to stay in front before leaving Young no airspace to do anything other than turn the ball over.
The possession may have been Kuzma’s best defense of the year, or maybe there have been better moments. Whatever the case may be, the play — and Kuzma’s pride in it — are emblematic of a mentality shift that has fueled his game forward.
“There is no doubt that he’s taken another step,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel after practice on Wednesday “(He’s shown) the mindset of buying into the role with this team, this Anthony and LeBron team, of being a dirty work guy and a guy that can carry the load offensively at times, but really someone that can impact the game in more ways than scoring.”
Beyond spurts of effective defense, another way Kuzma has made his presence felt has been on the glass. His rebounding tailed off the last two games, but prior to that he was in a 12-game stretch where he was averaging 7.3 rebounds per game, which would be a career-high for the fourth-year forward. Over the course of the season, his rebounds (8.5) and blocks (1) per 36 minutes are career highs thus far, per Basketball-Reference. His reduced usage rate (18.9%, the lowest of his career) has also helped quietly lead to the highest 3-point percentage he’s ever shot (38.1%).
That impact hasn’t shown up in his on-off metrics. Kuzma has the worst net rating (0.8) of any rotation player other than Wesley Matthews (-3.2), but that has also been dragged down by his constant presence in the team’s worst lineup to start the season. Now that he’s a part of one of their best ones, that could start to shift.
But even if it doesn’t, there is no doubt in Vogel’s mind that Kuzma has taken a step forward in terms of his approach, and in his ability to find ways to impact the game beyond just scoring.
“That’s the biggest area of growth that I think Kuz exhibited towards the end of least year and heading into this year. The running the floor and then working his tail off on the defensive end,” Vogel said. “We’ve seen all those things.”
If the Lakers continue to, then it’s s safe bet that Kuzma will be making a positive impact, even if — like a deleted tweet — you might miss it if you blink.