The Return of Kyle Kuzma

(Image/Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Fans had been already treated to the LeBron James and Anthony Davis Show, but on Friday evening in Dallas the Los Angeles Lakers added another key piece sooner than expected. 

In his much anticipated return in the Lakers’ recent thrilling overtime win, Kyle Kuzma performed about as expected after several months off the court. He was 3-8 from the field, with 9 points, 3 rebounds, and an assist while going 3-4 from the foul line. He shot poorly from distance in limited minutes but showed evidence of his ability to cut, defend the perimeter, and attack off the dribble.

As he is worked into his role over the next month or so, the team will look for him to consistently demonstrate the skills he has shown in flashes over his first 2-years.

It has been clear from the moment that Kawhi Leonard decided to take his talents to the Los Angeles Clippers this July that if the Lakers are going to take home a championship this season, Kyle Kuzma will have to be the third best player on the team. Danny Green is an elite shooter and a defensive stud, true, but his inconsistency finishing at the rim and as a ball handler make him a poor fit as a third scoring option during isolation-heavy playoff basketball.

Neither Dwight Howard nor Rajon Rondo are sufficient creators at this stage of their careers. The guard rotation has been solid but it has been obvious to this point that none of them is prepared to assume such a large role. That process of elimination leaves Kuzma.

The good news for fans is that the best version of Kuzma – and the version he has vocally been trying to become – is exactly what this team needs. In his first two seasons he has shown at various times the ability to shoot from distance, create off the dribble both for himself and his teammates, and creditably defend wings on the perimeter.

As it happens, those are precisely the skills the Lakers would like to shore up between now and the playoffs. The bad news is that Kuzma has yet to do all of those things at the same time. With his return from injury occurring sooner than expected, here are some specific things in each of those areas for fans to keep an eye on.

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Three Point Shooting

One of the highlights of Kuzma’s excellent rookie campaign was his much better than advertised shooting stroke. He shot a league average rate of 36.6% on a hefty 5.6 attempts per game from 3-point range that year, which for a rookie Power Forward with little anticipated shooting ability was a revelation. His second season last year fell unpleasantly flat in this regard. He shot only 30.3% during that campaign while simultaneously increasing his volume to an even 6 attempts per game.

Last season was so poor for Kuzma from a shooting perspective that he sought the assistance of well-regarded shooting coach and omnipresent Twitter personality Lethal Shooter over the summer. There were a number of tantalizing signs during his brief Team USA tenure that his efforts were bearing fruit, but with that experience cut short by injury our ability to infer from that to the NBA season is limited by a small sample size.

The need for effective, consistent 3-point shooting to maximize the Lakers’ strengths is acute. Through the first five games of the season everyone not named Danny Green on the roster has shot a combined 33-for-120 from deep, amounting to a putrid 27.5%. In spite of that, the Lakers managed to win four of those games – three running away – because James and Davis are so good and the team played suffocating defense.

Yet the offense has been inconsistent. In the opening night loss to the Clippers, the Lakers weren’t able to effectively punish their cross-city rivals for double-teaming Davis in the post because Green was the only one hitting his outside shots, and while there have been fewer posts since, the cold shooting continues.

Even if the others continue to shoot poorly indefinitely, should Kuzma return to his rookie year form from three he will give James and Davis a second kickout option when they attack the basket. In the playoffs where margins are razor thin, the extra spacing Kuzma has the potential to provide could unlock the Lakers’ offense in key situations.

35% on a volume consistent with last year is a reasonable benchmark for success, but if Kuzma is able to keep his volume high while tidying up his shot selection he is capable of much better.

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Creating Shots

Kuzma has the capacity to create shots for himself off the dribble, and displayed some promising growth in his passing touch from year one to year two. While his 3-point percentage cratered in his second year, his 2-point finishing and foul shooting improved markedly enough that his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) barely dropped at all, remaining at about league average. 

Meanwhile, his assists, usage, and points all increased while his turnovers remained constant. Being able to maintain efficiency while shouldering a larger offensive load is an important sign of development for a young player. Kuzma’s doing so even while shooting poorly from distance in his second year speaks to how much the other aspects of his game improved. Any player capable of creating shots for other people as well as themselves can have an outsized effect on offense simply by making the defenders think.

In a playoff setting, defenses will be putting everything on the line in a way they simply do not in the regular season. The first pass out of the paint, for instance from a driving James to Kuzma spotting up for three, is unlikely to create an open shot with regularity in the playoffs. This is where Kuzma’s ability to create for himself off the dribble and create for others when the defense reacts to his aggression will become crucial. 

Because of the addition of Anthony Davis, it is possible that Kuzma will find his usage reduced from last year. This makes monitoring counting stats misleading. Success for Kuzma in this dimension should therefore be measured by increases in his efficiency stats and, more specifically, his ability to attack closeouts and quickly make simple, correct reads on offense.

With the extra space from playing next to James and Davis, Kuzma ought to be able to exceed 55%TS with ease… provided he has the prudence to regulate his shot selection and trust that the points will come.

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(Image/Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Perimeter Defense

Kyle Kuzma produced many highlights during his rookie year. Almost none of them were defensive. His defensive ineptitude became a punch line in the media. He was undersized against larger Power Forwards in the NBA, and so had problems defending the interior. He also frequently failed to produce the effort required to defend the perimeter effectively, which meant there was nowhere on defense to hide him (and even if there had been, the ability of Luke Walton to find it would have been questionable at best).

While the film and advanced stats tell us that Kuzma was a much improved defender in his second year, the narrative about him has yet to catch up to reality. Expect that to change, and relatively quickly. The primary thing that changed about Kuzma’s defense in his second year was his effort. Kyle Kuzma is a big, long human being, and when he is playing hard on defense that size and his general mobility can create real problems for wings on offense. 

He remains too small to really clamp down in the post on proper bigs, but this team includes Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee. Post defense and rim protection are not going to be a problem. What the Lakers desperately need is one person aside from Danny Green who can take on the grind of guarding big, athletic perimeter wings on a night to night basis. Capable mid-range scorers with size can exploit the weaknesses in the Lakers’ scheme, and this personnel deficiency amplifies the issue.

Kawhi Leonard torched the Lakers from midrange when Green was off the court because Kentavious Caldwell-Pope simply isn’t large enough to keep him from getting his shot off the screen.

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(Image/Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)

A Brief Attempt at Prophecy

As the above discussion ought to have made clear, there are a range of potential outcomes for Kuzma this year. Of the areas analyzed, 3-point shooting remains his biggest question mark. The returns from Team USA were encouraging, but after last year prudence would dictate that we reserve judgment until he actually delivers again at the NBA level.

The added uncertainty of coming back from injury and finding his role within a team that is currently on a roll will probably affect his percentages early on. Provided he is healthy, Kuzma’s percentages should be fairly representative by Christmas. The most likely outcome seems to be a league average, high volume shooter, which is more than good enough.

The narrative this year is finally going to catch up to the reality about Kuzma’s perimeter defense. The open skepticism among basketball media about his ability to fill the necessary role on this team will fuel his already manic thirst to prove himself, and his defense will be the place where that chip on his shoulder is most visible. His effort combined with the fact that having him means coach Frank Vogel will need to rely less on three-guard lineups will greatly improve the defense on the second unit.

Finally, there are few surer bets in the NBA this year than that Kyle Kuzma will attack the basket. Aside from wearing ridiculous clothes, it is his favorite thing to do. The new presence of Anthony Davis as well as the general improvement in depth on the Lakers should secure him plenty of space to operate, and he will use it. The lack of handling and distribution skills among the Laker guards puts his ability to do those things well at a premium, particularly with the bench unit. Expect him to be an 18-20 point per game player and exceed 4 assists per game.

Aside from the debut of Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma’s return is the most anticipated event of the season to date for Laker fans. All indications are that he will have a real impact. While he shot inconsistently in his return, he showed the ability to do a number of things the Lakers will need him to do consistently throughout the year. It remains doubtful that he will attain his coveted All-Star status this year, but it is not outside the realm of possibility.

Regardless, his talents are obviously suited to the needs of the team, and every Laker fan should be excited to see what he can do.

By Phil Sizemore (@phsizemore)

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