Kuz Control: Kuzma Torches Rockets with 38 Points

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

When was the last time Kyle Kuzma got as hot on the court as he did in Wednesday’s win over Houston?

“Probably like fifth or sixth grade maybe,” he said. “For real, no joke.”

Kuzma was a flamethrower beyond the arc, shooting 7-of-10 from 3-point range on his way to 38 points — the second-most by a rookie Laker since the franchise moved to L.A. 57 years ago.

Kuzma got rolling early on, hitting all nine of his shots in the first half. He developed a rhythm, in part, because of the nice looks he was getting from teammates in the opening minutes.

This included a wide-open, spot-up triple off penetration from Josh Hart, who spun through the lane before dishing out to Kuz.

This type of slash-and-kick playmaking is something that the drive-heavy Lakers have talked about wanting to see more often.

Kuzma — inserted to the starting lineup largely because of the spacing his shooting provides — was able to make an immediate difference with his quality looks from deep (off that Hart drive, a Larry Nance Jr. offensive rebound and some defensive indifference from James Harden).

The rhythm developed on those first three treys helped Kuzma hit some tough 3’s throughout the rest of the game. Coach Luke Walton has made quality shot selection a point of emphasis for Kuzma this season, but was OK with lower-grade looks based on how hot his hand was this night.

Here, he fakes the drive before hitting the cool step-back over defensive ace P.J. Tucker.

Kuzma was scorching against a team that stood atop the league-wide standings after winning 14 games in a row. But to him, it was just like any other game.

“I scored 30 in Summer League, so…” Kuzma said with a shrug.

Hitting seven 3-pointers was certainly the fuel for his fire, but Kuzma also showed an ability to adjust his game based on the defense.

On this play, Tucker aggressively jumps out at him to prevent another 3-point strike.

So Kuz — whose driving has been even better than his team-best shooting this year — takes advantage, gets a step on the defender and finishes a tough layup while drawing the and-1 free throw.

Kuzma’s hot shooting also opened up opportunities for teammates, as he dished out four assists (the second-most of his young career) with zero turnovers.

Here, all five defenders’ heads turn toward Kuzma once he catches the ball off a screen, waiting to see if he pulls the trigger. He begins to drive but notices Lonzo Ball’s man has fallen asleep watching the play.

The result is an open triple for Ball.

Walton also took advantage of the attention Kuzma received with one of the most well-designed plays the Lakers have run all year.

There is so much misdirection on the sequence below, with a double screen for Corey Brewer, a cut to the hoop from Jordan Clarkson, and Kuzma receiving the pass off a pick from Larry Nance Jr.

The crux of the play is Kuzma’s threat to catch and shoot another trey. This puts Nance’s defender, Ryan Anderson, in no man’s land, as he isn’t sure whether to run out and contest Kuzma or stay back and allow the open shot.

Kuz sees this and fires a pass to Nance for the easy slam.

Just 28 games into his NBA career, Kuzma has shown scoring capabilities far beyond his years.

He has 11 nights with at least 20 points, including three in a row. There is a reason why Kobe Bryant listed him among the Lakers’ key pieces for the future during his jersey retirement press conference on Monday.

After the Houston game, Bryant also tweeted his approval of the high expectations to which the 22-year-old holds himself.

Kuzma grew up a basketball junkie, and Kobe was one of the players that he would study for his own game. That influence is evident in some of Kuzma’s footwork, which is so advanced for his age (though not near the level of Bryant, whose footwork was just about unparalleled).

Here, he gets switch onto 6-foot Chris Paul and immediately takes advantage of the 9-inch mismatch by posting up the post guard. Houston’s center, Nene, senses the danger and comes over to double team.

Kuzma stays calm, spins baseline, gives a little pump-fake and swishes the fadeaway jumper.

That right there is Mamba mode.

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