Kyle Kuzma served up spicy comments about his role. That’s good for the Lakers.
Over the past two years, Kyle Kuzma has earned plaudits from the Los Angeles Lakers players, coaching staff, and front office, as well as pundits, Draymond Green, and — before this June — non-casual Lakers fans, for productively embracing a supporting role alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
In 2017-18, Kuzma made All-Rookie First Team, leading the Lakers in points (16.1) and shot attempts (13.5) per game. As a sophomore, he averaged 18.7 PPG, second to LeBron. The former No. 27 overall pick was viewed both as an unlikely developmental success story yet, to some, an empty-calories one-way player.
Since 2019, under Frank Vogel, with the Lakers back in contention thanks to the AD acquisition, Kuzma adapted and evolved. His scoring average dropped (12.9 PPG), but he worked himself into an above-average defensive player and a winning, Swiss-Army-Knife contributor. He’s earned a ring and a contract extension for his efforts. (He seems to be thriving off-the-court, too.)
Instead of griping about his altered role, he consistently accentuated the positive.
“I think there’s this misconception about me as a person, people think I don’t love basketball, they see how I dress, how I dye my hair, and everything else,” he said after his game-winning bucket vs. the Houston Rockets in May. “But if you really watch basketball and you understand where I was from my rookie year to where I am now, I’ve really turned myself into a complete, all-around player. That’s from the grind, that’s from studying and from wanting to be as great as I can be. So I wouldn’t change my journey for anything. I think it’s been very valuable for me. It’s been very valuable to take a seat and watch Bron and AD play. That’s helped me tremendously in my growth.”
By the end of the 2020-21 season, though, Kuzma surrendered a portion of the goodwill he’d amassed and his scoring regression was detrimental. Heading into the second half, my biggest question for Kuzma was whether he could summon the scorer’s mindset when the Lakers needed it. And at times, he did. Kuzma raised his scoring average from 12.0 PPG before LeBron sprained his ankle on March 20 to 14.8 PPG afterward. He also failed to reach double-digits in 10 of those 28 contests.
In the first round vs. the Phoenix Suns, with LeBron and AD hampered by injury, Kuzma’s offense was nowhere to be found. He averaged 6.3 points on 14-of-48 shooting in the six-game loss.
I asked Frank Vogel if the Lakers need to get Kyle Kuzma — who has 2 points in the Suns series — going a little bit more on offense.
Short answer: "A little bit"
Full answer: below pic.twitter.com/5CqsCFei0j
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) May 27, 2021
Once again, Kuzma is at the center of trade buzz, despite Rob Pelinka including him in the team’s homegrown “core” he wants to keep intact. However, a trade is the Lakers’ lone route to adding a third star, and Kuzma’s age (25), contract ($13 million), and the fact that he’s very good at basketball make him the team’s most tradable piece.
Unless…Kuzma can become that third star himself. According to his comments to Bleacher Report, Kuzma believes he “definitely can” average 25 PPG and be an All-Star. He cited his defensive improvement, too:
“I’ve done a great job every offseason of trying to build something and add something to my game,” he said. “I’ve turned myself into a great defender. My rookie year, I was a stop sign on defense. I didn’t really stop anybody. Now, whether it’s elite wings, 4 men, even point guards and shooting guards, I have the ability to guard four positions now and really affect the game on that end of the court.”
For the record, Kuzma hit 25 points in a game 23 times over his first two seasons. In the past two, he’s done it eight times.
“My biggest thing is I just want to play within a consistent role,” Kuzma said. “If I have that ability, I’ll be able to showcase what I can really do. There were parts of this year—and even anywhere else in my career—when I’m in a consistent space, I’m out there handling the ball, making teammates better, scoring, shooting, defending, rebounding. I think if I’m in that space, I’ll be good.”
To some folks and #LakersTwitter, Kuzma’s comments were taken as a disgruntled player venting frustrations on his way out of town. I disagree. His candor and confidence represent a welcome change in mindset. He wants to be more immersed in the flow of the game and optimize the impact of his all-around skill improvement.
All that’s nice, but the Lakers need him to refocus on bucket-getting. Kuzma shot a respectable 36.1% from deep in 2020-21, but his on-court value would skyrocket if that number could approach 40 percent. In general, the Lakers’ offense is at its best when he’s aggressive, letting it fly, and slicing around.
“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 told B/R.
If he isn’t traded, the Lakers should give him the opportunity. After all, it’s not like their offense has been a juggernaut under Vogel. On the contrary — they need shot creation.
The good news is that Kuzma has done the hardest part: he’s honed into an excellent all-around hooper. Now, the Lakers should encourage him to do what he does best: put the ball in the cup. Either way, Kuzma’s willingness to outwardly state his ambition to make more of a dent in the offense is good to hear.
The hustle points are admirable, but let Kuz cook again.