For all the jokes about his hair or fashion sense, all the tired memes about him not being a helpful player, the reality is that Kyle Kuzma has built himself into a key contributor for the Lakers this year. No less an analyst than Zach Lowe of ESPN — for my money the best NBA journalist on the planet right now — was the latest to point it out on his podcast this week.
“Kyle Kuzma is just a good basketball player now,” Lowe said.
For the Lakers, this is no longer a surprise, even if Kuzma’s national reputation hasn’t quite caught up. And as anyone who has actually watched the Lakers this year has noticed, Kuzma’s production has shown up in ways that are vastly different than his hyped rookie breakout. His defense has turned into a net positive even if he’s stagnated there a bit lately, his shooting has quietly gotten up to league-average after two down years, and during the team’s most recent game against the Wizards, Kuzma put on his playmaking hat, dishing a season-high 8 assists, just two short of his career-high.
After the game, head coach Frank Vogel made it clear that at this point he expects this level of play from Kuzma.
“He’s been great. Kuz has been great all year,” Vogel said. “The positivity that he brings to our team, doing whatever the team needs for us to get Ws, and staying aggressive and making the right reads. That’s the biggest thing with him. We know he can score, but we want him to make the right basketball play each time down.
“Sometimes that’s going to be getting to the basket, shooting catch-and-shoot threes, sometimes if help comes, he’s going to make the right play. You saw that with the 8 assists, so I’m very pleased with how he’s playing.”
Kuzma has especially stepped up as a facilitator over the last month, during which he’s averaged 2.4 assists. That may not sound like much, but by Kuzma’s usual standards that’s basically Magic Johnson, as his current career-high for a season is 2.5 assists per game. He’s moving the ball as well as ever right now, and deserves some recognition for it.
The Lakers will need Kuzma to continue doing all of the little things he’s doing now — albeit at a semi-reduced level — when LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both back in the lineup and get their legs under them, but there is reason to have faith. Kuzma has embraced the uncertainty that comes with being a versatile role player, and has learned to thrive in chaos. His play won’t make or break the Lakers’ chances in the postseason, but if he continues to be great for the team for the rest of the year, it would certainly help them find their footing as they look to defend their title.