THE STORY OF Kyle Kuzma’s young NBA career has been one of many extremes. In just three seasons, NBA fans around the world watched as a relatively unknown prospect from Flint, Michigan turned into a fan-favorite player for the league’s most popular team. After being projected as an early second-round selection, Kuzma turned heads in the NBA Summer League, quickly developing a strong bond with the Lakers’ #2 selection, Lonzo Ball.
It was in the Summer League where fans realized that the Lakers had another talented prospect on their hands, joining the likes of Jordan Clarkson and Ivica Zubac as prospects acquired by the Lakers in Draft Day steals.
Averaging 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.1 steals per game, Kuzma became the Summer League Championship Game MVP with a 30 point, 10 rebound performance in the championship game.
After a strong rookie season, one that saw him average 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds on an above-average 36.6% on three-pointers, Kuzma joined the All-Rookie first team, outperforming Lonzo Ball, and simultaneously becoming a member of the Lakers’ young core.
And when LeBron James joined the Lakers in free agency, it was Kuzma who elevated his performance, using his streaky shooting and slashing abilities to complement James, while Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart all struggled to adjust to playing with a ball-dominant superstar.
But the story of Kuzma in Los Angeles isn’t one comprised entirely of success; as of today, with the season postponed, Kuzma declined in almost every quantitative measurement in his third season — while Ball and Ingram are living up to their All-Star potential while in New Orleans.
So what does the future hold for Kyle Kuzma? Is he still part of the Lakers’ future (presumably with Anthony Davis and an aging Lebron James), or is he L.A.’s final trading piece as the Lakers try to gain as many championships as possible out of the James-Davis partnership?
THIS SEASON, KUZMA’S biggest flaw has been his inconsistency. When L.A. held him out of trade talks during their prolonged attempts at acquiring Anthony Davis, they did so both for Kuzma’s minuscule salary (Under $2 million), and for his projected fit on the revamped Lakers.
On paper, Kuzma was a great fit for this Lakers squad: an athletic forward who could space the floor, get easy looks around the basket when teams helped off of him to guard James or Davis, and could serve as a secondary playmaker when James or Davis was off the court.
Defensively, despite being anemic for most of his early career, Kuzma showed flashes as an athletic forward who compensated for poor footwork and lateral quickness with effort and athleticism.
So what went wrong with Kuzma this season, who was projected to take the reins as a third-option offensively, behind only James and Davis?
The first issue is the simplest: Kuzma’s shooting has simply proved to not be consistent ever since his rookie season. Based on the eye test, there are no systematic issues with Kuzma’s form, aside from some inconsistent footwork. But, despite working with celebrity shooting coaches and Team USA throughout the offseason, there has been no improvement in Kuzma’s shooting — in fact, there has only been a marked regression.
On three-pointers, Kuzma is down to 29.7%, the worst mark of his career. This poor shooting has compounded Kuzma’s place in Frank Vogel’s supersized lineups with Anthony Davis at power-forward and LeBron at point-guard.
The only hope for Kuzma is his 34.3% catch-and-shoot three-point percentage, which is below average but not anemic, and Kuzma’s 52.0% on corner three-point shots, which makes his overall shooting numbers even more confusing.
Additionally, Kuzma hasn’t made the type of strides as a playmaker or shot-creator that would suggest he could lead second units as a #1 option.
Kuzma averaged more turnovers than assists, and his mediocre ball-handling paired with his dreadful non-catch-and-shoot three-point shot has hampered his effectiveness. Meanwhile, on defense, it appears as though Kuzma lacks lower body strength, often “hopping” instead of sliding laterally.
L.A.’s midseason signing of Markieff Morris, a natural power forward, which pushed Kuzma to play small forward more often than ever, did little to aid Kuzma’s inconsistency.
All of these issues compounded themselves into Kuzma’s complete lack of consistency. In consecutive games — and this is not an exaggeration — Kuzma went from scoring 24 points to scoring 0 points, to scoring 19 points. The highs of Kuzma’s success are only topped by his lows.
The on/off splits don’t paint a pretty picture for Kuzma either. The Lakers are +2.2 points better when Kuzma remains on the bench, and he has negative splits in both offensive and defensive box plus/minus (a measurement of a player’s impact).
But what if there was still hope for Kyle Kuzma to fulfill his potential — even with his horrid 2020 campaign in consideration?
WHAT IF THERE was a scenario in which Kuzma’s numbers suddenly resembled his first two seasons — even on this star-studded Lakers roster? What would it mean for Kuzma’s future on the Lakers?
Well, that scenario isn’t hypothetical. This season, as a starter, meaning with Anthony Davis out of the lineup, Kuzma averaged 20.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists with his shooting splits from the field increasing by 4.7 percentage points and his three-point shooting increasing to 34.1 percent. Additionally, Kuzma posted a 115 offensive rating and a 112 defensive rating as a starter, which were far above his splits as a reserve.
The key to these changes is simple: it maximizes Kuzma’s time with LeBron James.
While James lifts the numbers of each of the Lakers’ players, it is Kuzma who benefits the most from James’ gravity.
Without James, Kuzma tends to shoot inefficient, contested jump-shots, while, with LeBron, Kuzma is a much more efficient player. It is with James as a starter where Kuzma gets his most favorable looks at the basket and at the corners, the two locations on the floor where he excels at.
With an aforementioned shooting percentage of 52.0% from the corners and a 79.5% clip from 0–3 feet, it is James who maximizes the efficiencies of Kuzma, while minimizing his weaknesses.
This effect is only supported by the on/off splits of the lineup pairings in Frank Vogel’s rotations.
In a two-man pairing with James, Kuzma posts a +14.4 net rating, a number which far exceeds that of splits with Rajon Rondo, the Lakers’ primary backup point guard, and Anthony Davis (at +4.3 and +1.3 respectively).
Rondo, in particular, struggles to create quality shots when not sharing the floor with James or Davis, and his inability to draw the defense’s attention away from Kuzma is a point of contention in Vogel’s decision to bring Kuzma off of the bench.
With Davis, Kuzma’s poor fit is less clear. Kuzma can space the floor for Davis, but doing so reduces his role to being a spot-up shooter, which is not a role he excels in. Additionally, Davis’ tendency to attack through post-ups and isolations clogs the lanes for Kuzma to drive, limiting Kuzma’s effectiveness.
So Frank Vogel has a dilemma: he can continue to utilize Kuzma off of the bench, with Rajon Rondo, or he can maximize Kuzma’s impact by playing him with LeBron James.
There are drawbacks to both scenarios. Removing Kuzma’s scoring from non-LeBron lineups heightens Rondo’s tendency to over-dribble in pursuit of potential assists, which bogs down L.A.’s offense. Meanwhile, playing Kuzma with LeBron detracts from L.A.’s defense, particularly because only one of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee can share the floor with James and Kuzma at any given time.
Overall, LeBron may play 40 minutes a night in the playoffs, so Vogel will likely be able to find ways to maximize Kuzma’s time with LeBron when it matters most.
UP TO THIS point, Kuzma’s role with the current roster has been murky, but there is still a clear way to maximize his production. But, looking towards the future, does Kuzma have any clear value as a future building block for the franchise?
The numbers suggest Kuzma won’t experience a major improvement entering his prime. But there are qualitative aspects to Kuzma’s growth that suggest he might be capable of living up to the praise from his first two seasons.
First, as a young player on a contending team, Kuzma has had to learn to make the “winning play” often at the behest of his shot attempts and individual numbers. Many of the Lakers’ veterans have elaborated on this idea of molding Kuzma into a winning player, rather than just a high-volume scorer who puts up gaudy numbers.
One instance of this growth came in a January matchup against the Houston Rockets. In the first half, in a game where Anthony Davis sat with an injury, Russell Westbrook torched L.A.’s perimeter defense, scoring 22 points while being guarded by Alex Caruso, Kentavious-Caldwell Pope, Avery Bradley, and Danny Green — all of whom are above-average defenders.
In the locker room, with the Lakers trailing, Rajon Rondo suggested that Kuzma take the challenge of guarding the uber-athletic Westbrook. The results were encouraging. In the second half, per NBA.com, Westbrook scored just two points and committed three turnovers while being guarded by Kuzma.
This was just one instance of Kuzma’s willingness to take challenges to grow as an overall player — which reflects negatively in Kuzma’s quantitative statistics but is a major positive in terms of Kuzma’s growth as a player.
On offense, Frank Vogel challenged Kuzma to be more of a leader, with end-of-quarter possessions sometimes being given to him. In these scenarios, Kuzma usually receives a screen as a ball-handler, a new situation which he mostly avoided in his first two seasons. Therefore, Kuzma’s stats as a ball-handler have mostly been below-average, but as he gains experience, the Lakers are hoping to unlock more of Kuzma’s scoring potential.
“Taking challenges is part of growth,” Kuzma said after that January game in Houston. “It’s part of just maturing and just getting to that next step, or getting over a certain plateau. Anytime you accept challenges or face adversity, it bodes well for yourself, no matter if you successfully do it, or you fail, it’s always a lesson. For me, just taking challenges and making the best of my opportunities is what I do.”
So Kuzma remains in the dark in regards to his future with the Lakers. He regressed statistically, but improved qualitatively, in many ways. He will be due for an extension in 2021, among many other high-profile names in a stacked free-agency class, and his potential salary could vary wildly depending on his performance in these playoffs and the 2020–2021 season.
Kuzma remains as L.A.’s only viable young asset in a potential trade, yet he is also the key to maximizing the championship potential of these 2020 L.A. Lakers — so, in conclusion, the future of Kyle Kuzma is dependent on maximizing him now.
All stats via Basketball Reference or NBA.com