Kyle Kuzma is the NBA’s version of a Rorschach test. To some, the 25-year-old is an inefficient chucker, more interested in his off-court fashion than his craft. To others, the Lakers forward is someone who has made strides in turning himself into a winning player, but due to external factors, has been stuck in limbo in his quest to take the next step.
Like most things, Kuzma’s status in the league is likely somewhere in the middle. But it wasn’t always that way. Ask anyone in attendance inside the boisterous Thomas and Mack Center back in 2017, for example.
Kuzma, then only known as the mysterious draftee sent back in the polarizing D’Angelo Russell trade, dazzled the Summer League crowd with a collection of veteran-like footwork, a soaking wet jumper and unmistakable confidence that left many fans hopeful they had something special in the kid from Flint, Michigan.
That optimism only grew when Kuzma took the floor in his rookie season, as his scoring ability translated nearly from the jump. Like most gifted scorers, Kuzma immediately displayed a patented go-to when it came to putting the ball in the basket. For him, it was a feathery floater.
The weapon was an effective counter-punch if defenses ran him off the 3-point line, a safety net when faced with a hovering big around the basket, and a reliable weapon to hurt teams in the area of the floor that has become most available due to analytics de-prioritizing the mid-range.
As a rookie, Kuzma’s floaters (aka runners) yielded an impressive 0.95 points per possession according to Synergy. And in what is often classified as the “short mid-range” area of the floor (4-14 feet), the former 27th overall pick converted 46% of his attempts, according to Cleaning the Glass. The latter number was good for the 90th percentile among all forwards in the league that year.
Kuzma’s combination of height, touch, and a devastating spin-move made the floater an ideal shot, especially against defenses whose bigs are now trained to protect the rim at all costs, or get parallel with the ball-handler.
“With the way defenses play, dropping down, their bigs being way back in the paint, you have that shot pretty much anytime you want it,” Mike Conley told The Score last year when asked about the floater’s utility.
Serving as a “drop buster,” the inclusion of this shot has become more en vogue now than at any point in recent memory with the likes of Trae Young and Ja Morant serving as this era’s flag-bearers.
According to Kirk Goldsberry’s recent research on the upward trend, NBA shooters combined to shoot 12,286 floaters this past season, and the shot overall is 22% more frequent now than in 2013, when the league first introduced its player-tracking system.
For Kuzma, his floater game only improved in his sophomore season, as his points per possession on the shot jolted to an elite mark of 1.14, which ranked in the 94th percentile of the entire league.
What had the makings of an encouraging upwards trend for Kuzma, particularly in today’s NBA, drastically dropped in year three, before hitting rock bottom this past season.
During the 2019-20 season, Kuzma’s efficiency on his floater dropped to 0.86 points per possession, which while still above average, was a far cry from his rookie and sophomore season effectiveness.
This only worsened during the most recent campaign, when he plummeted to 0.5 points per floater, which ranked in the mere 5th percentile amongst all players. That once nearly automatic shot from a player that oozed belief experienced a staggering and mysterious drop-off.
Those spin moves became few and far between. The silky touch and arc on his shot when it left his hands turned awkward and flat. The confidence was gone.
When attempting to diagnose what may have changed during these past two seasons, it’s hard to ignore the context of his new surroundings and change in role. Something even Kuzma himself has alluded to.
“For me, when I first came into the league, I was drafted here and the situation really allowed me to spread my wings and become a scorer,” Kuzma said during the team’s recent exit interviews. “And then as people come, LeBron James comes, Anthony Davis, I had to take another role and fit in, and that was to become a team player.”
And while there is a loud segment of the fanbase that chooses to ignore it, there is a lot of truth to the alterations Kuzma has made to his game to better fit-in next to the likes of James and Davis. Namely, by unclogging the lane and helping space the floor for the star duo, which conversely diminished his chances to hoist up that once reliable floater.
As the chart above illustrates, Kuzma took the highest percentage of his shots from behind the arc of his career (48%) this past season, which also directly correlated to him taking the lowest frequency of his attempts from the aforementioned short mid-range area (14%).
With more bodies in the paint, and less touches overall, this decline could be further seen in the lack of chances for Kuzma to get downhill. As a rookie, he tallied 378 “drives” according to league’s site’s tracking data. This past season, he only had 272.
There is also the question of what role the short offseason had on his legs. While there was a clear gameplan in place in slotting him further away from the basket, Kuzma himself possibly could have settled there instead of exerting extra energy in going toward the rim. The same argument could also be had with the energy absorption that came with his uptick in effort on the defensive end and on the glass.
The overall lack of attempts and frequency could have also ultimately disrupted what was a clear rhythm in his floater game early in his career. The pressure cooker that comes with playing on what is expected to be a championship contender every season versus the prior lax environment of a rebuilding team also should not be ignored.
Whatever happens with Kuzma going forward is still wildly up in the air. He is already in trade rumors, just like it is every season. His improvements to his game may also continue to be overlooked due to a disappointing playoff series, or a dubious social media comment here and there. Fair or not.
In a few ways, Kuzma’s disappearing floater game is representative of his tenure with the Lakers thus far. The mountains high, the valleys low, a player whose reputation changes more often than his hair color. Improving and taking steps back, simultaneously. The league’s very own basketball Rorschach test, still as perplexing as ever.
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