Coming into the 2019-20 season, many, myself included, were hoping that Kyle Kuzma would take the leap and ascend into the third star while playing alongside the two superstars on the squad in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The hope was somewhat justified after the previous two seasons averaging 16.1 and 18.7 points per game on solid efficiency. Though he’d display flashes of dropping buckets in abundance in both his first and second seasons, his scoring numbers have taken a tumble, dipping down to a modest 12.8 points per game with a career-worst 50% effective field goal percentage. It was obvious he was adjusting his game to find new ways to produce alongside two bonafide superstars and having the ball ins his hands less often. However, the adjustment was made and Kuzma has now found his stride in a complementary role, flourishing thanks to a newfound commitment to finding production without the ball in his hands.
Defense was not exactly what you’d call Kyle Kuzma’s calling card, to put it nicely. During the 2018-19 season, with Kuzma on the floor, the Lakers’ defensive rating was a mediocre 109.7 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. While that was not all his fault, Kuzma was not the solution either. That tide turned last season, particularly from the second half of the season and inside the bubble. During the 2019-20 season, the Lakers defensive rating with Kuzma was a solid 105.2 points per 100 possessions, and that number has become even sturdier in the playoffs, with the Lakers boasting a robust 101.7 points per 100 possessions, the second-best mark on the team behind the Bald Eagle himself, Alex Caruso. His play has backed up those numbers.
Due to the construction of the Lakers’ roster, Kuzma has been tasked with guarding any kind of player, ranging from slippery guards to bruising wings. Previously, he’d have some issues with both kinds of players, but he’s begun to put the clamps on his opponent regardless of what his assignment is. Against CJ McCollum in the first round of the 2020 playoffs, Kuzma held it down and made it more difficult on CJ, one of the better shifty iso guards in the game. In three regular-season games against the Clippers last year (he didn’t play in the season opener way back in October), Kuzma took the assignment of Kawhi Leonard. While it is troublesome to anyone who stands in the way of the cyborg, Kuzma held his ground and made Leonard work to get his shots off. Kuzma is shifty enough to stick with Leonard and now strong enough to not get run over by one of the stronger players in the league.
Houston, Denver, and Miami were a different kind of assignment for Kuzma, but he was solid against the anti-establishment Rockets and the wonky Nuggets and Heat in the playoffs a year ago. Kuzma wasn’t tasked with guarding Harden all that often, but he had to deal with the chaos Harden ensues on the court while defending off the ball and handled it very well in that regard. Many times, Houston would put off-ball defenders in the middle of defending two defenders at once in hopes of spurring an open three or a dunk. Watch here how Kuzma tags the rolling Jeff Green to take away that pass for James Harden, then rotates back over to his original man (Robert Covington) and runs him off the three-point line, eventually forcing a turnover. Houston confuses many a defender with this conflict, yet Kuzma handles the chaos perfectly.
Kyle Kuzma’s usage rate was only 18.8% in the playoffs, which would’ve been a regular-season career-low, but he still found ways to be useful there. It would be great if the three-ball would stop eluding him, but he found different ways of making defenses pay with offensive rebounds and timely cuts. Before the season was postponed, Kuzma began making it a habit to barge his way to the rim for offensive rebounds like George Costanza running out of an apartment on fire. He averaged roughly one offensive rebound per game in the postseason. He routinely swerved around Russell Westbrook to clean the glass and get himself easy bunnies, as he did here in Game 3 of the Rockets series. Easy points like this to put less pressure on LeBron and Davis are a must and Kuzma is getting himself some.
Kuzma has also figured out how to take advantage of Houston’s defense as a cutter. Cutting has always been a nifty tool in Kuzma’s bag, and he’s been bringing it more and more. Kuz scored 1.42 points per possession off of cuts in the 2020 postseason, per NBA.com. Watch here as the Rockets load-up on, in this case, Rajon Rondo, so Kuz finds the open spot on the floor and saunters right to the front of the rim and gets an easy layup to help ice the game. While the Lakers lost Rondo in the offseason, they replaced him with Dennis Schroder and added Marc Gasol to bolster their frontcourt, who already looks comfortable finding teammates in the middle of the floor from the top of the key. And not to mention, that LeBron James guy is still on the Lakers and will be for a while.
The growth of Kyle Kuzma has been great and fun to watch as a Lakers fan. You started to see flashes of this change in Kuzma’s game before the bubble, but that’s where Kuzma really saw how successful he can be playing this style. Kuz has carried that positive momentum into the preseason. While Talen Horton-Tucker has been the talk of the preseason (and rightfully so), Kuzma has been hooping as well, averaging 17.5 points per game in four preseason games, while shooting 41.6% from deep in the process. Now that he has a year playing this type of role under his belt, perhaps Kuzma now is more comfortable and is ready to take his game up another level. At least his teammate LeBron James seems to think so.
Lakers fans, myself included, have been guilty of propping Kuzma perhaps into a tier he doesn’t belong in. He’s gone from a scoring dynamo whose good games were predicated on how much he scored in a given game to becoming an energetic glue guy also capable of going off for a big game scoring-wise that helps his team win. I think the book has been written on asking Kuzma to handle the rock and create consistently off the dribble. He’s better when he’s getting the ball on the move and either finishing or finding teammates with a head of steam as a secondary playmaker. Many, myself included, hoped Kuzma would turn into the third star and form another big three for LeBron to torment the league with. Instead, he’s turned into the key piece who can defend multiple positions and can find ways to get his within the flow of the offense in a more beneficial manner for team success. It isn’t easy for a young player to make that commitment, but it is finally starting to pay off for Kyle Kuzma, literally, after winning a championship in his third pro season in October and signing a contract extension yesterday, and he deserves all the credit in the world for the hard work he’s put in.