After being selected with the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Kyle Kuzma was initially a relatively unknown prospect to fans of the Los Angeles Lakers. However, a stellar rookie campaign posting an average of 16.1 points per game quickly built the Flint native a reputation of being a flat-out scorer. Which was further backed by his 45% shooting from the field and 36.6% conversion rate from beyond the arc. This earned him a selection into the 2017-18 NBA All-Rookie Team.
With the addition of LeBron James on the Lakers in the summer of 2018, Kuzma’s game took a step further in his sophomore season. Where his scoring jumped to 18.7 points per game. Even though his 3-point shooting dropped to a below average 30.3%, his overall field goal percentage increased slightly to 45.6%. He even won MVP honors at the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in the Rising Stars game, where he scored a game-high 35 points.
Going into his third season in the professional ranks, and with the addition of a second superstar in Anthony Davis, the expectation was for Kuzma’s game to step up even further. Specifically, for him to be the third scorer on a championship contender.
Long story short, it’s not been a straight road for the 25-year-old in the 2019-20 season. His scoring and shooting averages have dropped to 12.8 and 43.6%, respectively, due to streaky performances. His rebounding and assists numbers are down too. Additionally, his minutes per game have fallen to a career-low 25, as a result of him losing his starting place to Davis.
He did show spurts of his former self however. Scoring a season-high 36 points in a road victory against Oklahoma City Thunder. In-fact, when he has started instead of Davis, he has posted averages of 20.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists, on 49.7% shooting, 36% from 3. When scoring 20+ points this season, the Lakers had an impressive 8-2 regular season record.
Although, it does need to be noticed that his game has progressed in other facets. He has realized that he isn’t a top scoring option, unlike in his first two seasons in the NBA. As the purple and gold have LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a host of veteran options, including Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Avery Bradley.
Kuzma’s defensive rating in the regular season sat at a career-high 105.2. Some of that will be due to him having a better team surrounding him, but his intensity and focus on the defensive end has increased dramatically.
In the NBA bubble in Orlando, Kuzma finished the 2019-20 regular season in red-hot form. Shooting 44.5% from 3-point land on an average of 15.4 points per game. This led to him being part of his first ever NBA postseason, where even though his numbers have dropped again, he has flourished in his role. Doing the small things that matter.
When out on the perimeter on the offensive end, he’s been cutting to the basket often. In his first two seasons, he would have been doing this to purely receive the ball and looking to score. However, now the 25-year-old recognizes that such cuts can space the floor and create opportunities for the many shooters on the team. As well as the superstar duo of James and Davis. Alternatively, his cuts allow him to plant himself in-front of his man in anticipation of any misses, to grab the offensive board. In the 9 postseason games, to date, he is averaging 1 offensive rebound in each contest. That extra effort has been on full show in Disney World.
Not to mention, his sheer will and desire to fight for loose balls. As displayed in Game 3 of the second-round against the Houston Rockets. Where he ran the entire length of the court to save a ball trickling out of bounds, by throwing himself to the floor and into the advertising board.
Kuzma has taken huge strides forward on the defensive end. In the postseason so far, his defensive rating is 101.5. This places him in 3rd place on the Lakers’ roster for players that have played over 15 minutes. He falls behind Alex Caruso and Markieff Morris, and sits ahead of Anthony Davis.
His agility and quick feet has allowed him to stay in front of some of the NBA’s best players. At the very least, his strong 6-foot-8 frame makes it awkward for opponents, who have to frequently alter their shots in his presence. Which has been ever-present in the series’ against the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockers. Where he has matched up against the likes of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook.
Even though everyone expected Kuzma to step-up in scoring this season, it appears that he’s stepped up in maturity, adopting a team-player mentality. He has established the ability to read the game better on both ends of the court, looking ahead at how the game will unfold. Not to mention his new-found recognition to create opportunities for others off-the-ball, through intelligent movement. Although, his scoring promise is still well and truly there. Along with the capability to light-up for 25-30+ points on any given night.
A more consistent scoring punch off the bench for the Lakers would be welcomed, as Kuzma has been very up-and-down all season long in that regard. But credit where credit is due. Kuzma’s all-round effort has improved significantly. As he has become a very important piece for a championship-contending Lakers team that has returned to the very top of the NBA once again.
Cover image credit: Kevin C. Cox/Pool Photo via AP
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