Kyle Kuzma has never lacked for belief in himself, and it’s honestly easy to see why. Kuzma was a relatively unheralded prospect before the Lakers picked him 27th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, and he wasn’t expected to do much during his rookie season. He instead made the All-Rookie First Team.
Kuzma was later dangled in trade rumors for Anthony Davis all season in his second year, but The Boy Who Lived remained the next summer as all of his young former teammates were shipped to New Orleans. And while Kuzma didn’t live up to the Third Star hopes he had for himself, he contributed to a title team in just his third NBA season, adapting to a defense-first, off-ball role over that year and the one to follow.
So even after an underwhelming 2021 playoff run that left belief in him as low as its been since he entered the NBA, it’s not surprising that Kuzma still thinks he has a higher ceiling to reach. While some saw a player who looked out of his depth when the focus was ratcheted up on him, Kuzma saw an inconsistent role that, if normalized, could still have him on track to exceed expectations again and become an All-Star.
This summer he’s focused on making that happen, and in case his belief he can be among the game’s best players didn’t make it clear, he thinks he can do a lot more than he got to show for the Lakers over the last two years. He’s demonstrated that he can contribute on defense and in a small offensive role, but he told Tyler Conway of Bleacher Report that expanding his limited opportunities is his focus this summer:
Kuzma says he’s now intent on fixing the other major flaw some see in his game: ball-handling.
After taking a couple weeks of rest following the Lakers’ elimination, Kuzma hit the gym to focus on fine-tuning his handle in hopes of gaining more offensive responsibility. He desires the trust to lead offensive sets and help make teammates better rather than stay stationary on offense. In 2020-21, a career-high 58.2 percent of Kuzma’s shots came with zero dribbles; only 20.6 percent of his shots were pull-ups.
“I’m working on my ball-handling so I’m able to get where I want on the court more efficiently and not necessarily be an in-the-corner type of shooter,” Kuzma said.
The question is: Do the Lakers agree with him? Kuzma’s three-year, $40 million extension kicks in this summer, and his $13 million 2021-22 salary is one of the few semi-desirable trade chips the Lakers have. They are reportedly already shopping him, and perhaps the timing of that leak is not an accident. Kuzma believing he can do more is fine — he wouldn’t have made it this far without such self confidence — but whether or not the Lakers are gauging trade interest in him because they aren’t sure he’ll buy back into a role where he’s asked to do less is something to monitor.
Kuzma has been the quintessential good soldier over the last two seasons, but his recent comments have made it clear he sees himself as more than the Swiss Army Knife role player the Lakers have tried to develop him into. Him doing a little more as a ballhandler could probably help the team — they are looking for another playmaker, after all — but do they think Kuzma can develop into that role? Or would he be better served as an outgoing piece in a transaction to acquire that style of player?
Having role guys that can do more than stand in the corner is great, but ultimately, on a team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, standing in the corner is also going to happen a lot. How the Lakers manage that push-and-pull with Kuzma, or if they continue to keep him on the roster, will be one of the major storylines to watch with the team this offseason.