Kyle Kuzma’s Playoff Upside
With Avery Bradley out, and Rajon Rondo set to miss 6 to 8 weeks, fellow guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso first come to mind as players set for increased roles.
But there’s another player on the roster who might best represent L.A.’s playoff upside: Kyle Kuzma.
The 2019-20 season up to this point has seen Kuz come off the bench behind two of the NBA’s best players: LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who happen to play his position. As such, the Flint, Mich. native saw his average minutes go from 33.1 in 2018-19 down to 24.6, and his scoring fall from 18.7 to 12.5.
Meanwhile in Kuzma’s seven starts, often with Davis out of the lineup, his numbers bumped up to 32.7 minutes and 20.3 points.
Throughout the season, Kuzma has emphasized over and over that he just wants to help the team win. He’s said his scoring can’t be the only focus, even though that remains his best skill and the thing he looks to first, and that he wants to keep improving other parts of his game, especially his defense.
He was asked earlier this week about being a third option on offense.
“Honestly I don’t think about that,” he said. “It’s all about this team game, that’s how we approach it. Obviously I can score and get my own bucket, but we’re just trying to play the right way.”
The 24-year-old still has some work to do on that end, but he’s improved significantly, with a 104.5 defensive rating compared to his 109.7 in 2018-19.
During one of Frank Vogel’s daily media sessions last weekend, he suggesting that both Kuz and AD would take on some additional playmaking duties in the half court with Bradley and Rondo out.
Makes sense. Both forwards can make plays off the dribble, both can get their own shot. But it was Vogel’s comment on Tuesday afternoon that should pique your interest about Kuzma’s upside:
Kuz has been one of our best players since this restart in these practices, he’s had a couple of stretches where he just dominated the floor and it’s been really encouraging to see. He had some inconsistency with the beginning of our season because he dealt with three different injuries that really prohibited him from getting his legs under him. The shot-making wasn’t always there, but it’s been there at a very high level during this restart, and we’re very encouraged and excited about what having a real/healthy training camp could mean for him. Hopefully that leads to an increased role and gives us that boost that we’re looking for.
At this time last summer, Kuz was playing some great basketball for Team USA, as Coach Gregg Popovich’s first sub off the bench, and a key to the second unit offense. He was flying around on defense and shooting the ball very well, hitting 4 of 5 3’s in his final game in a win over Australia.
But then he got hurt.
A stress reaction in his foot not only kept him off Team USA’s World Cup squad, and he had to watch the Americans fall to France in the quarterfinals, failing to secure a third straight victory after wins in 2010 and 2014.
The injury also robbed him of his preseason, and instead of starting the season in the best shape of his life, he didn’t play in a game until LAL’s fifth of the season, a 119-110 OT win at Dallas on Nov. 1.
And with LeBron* averaging 34.9 minutes and AD 34.3, there simply weren’t that many frontcourt minutes to go around.
*Of course LeBron often plays point guard, but he typically defends small forward, and AD power forwards.
The prevailing thought was that Kuz would finish many games in L.A.’s small lineup featuring AD at the five, but both JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard played very well throughout the season, and Vogel didn’t go to that unit as often as may have been expected. Plus, the at times out-of-rhythm Kuzma was competing with KCP and Alex Caruso for minutes when Vogel did go small.
But things could be a bit different in the postseason.
Kuzma has used these past four months to get fully healthy and to get stronger, and as Vogel and some of his teammates have noted from Orlando, he’s been very sharp.
“I’m just healthy and confident,” said Kuz. “Used the time for the quarantine to try and get better as much as I could, and I’m just reaping the benefits by just being confident.”
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