(J Alexander Diaz/Lakers.com)
Christmas Kuzma Heats Up for 31 Points
Two months into his rookie season, Kyle Kuzma has made explosive nights part of his routine.
He has averaged 27.8 points over his last five games, pushing him ahead of Utah’s Donovan Michell as the leading scorer among this year’s rookie class.
His latest burst came against Minnesota on Tuesday, as he dropped 31 points — the most by a rookie on Christmas Day since LeBron James had 34 in 2003.
Both Kuzma and Coach Luke Walton downplayed that bit of history, saying Christmas is just like any other day of the year when it comes to basketball.
“What’s most impressive to me about him is that he’s upset after the game because, even though he played great, we lost,” Walton said. “He comes in here today and is hungry to work again.”
In fact Kuzma is always starving for work.
According to Walton, Kuzma’s competitive nature is evident in everything he does, from summer scrimmages to post-practice games of one-on-one to shooting competitions against assistant coaches Brian Shaw and Miles Simon.“He goes as hard as he can and does everything he can possibly do to try to win that game,” Walton said. “I think that’s the type of people and type of culture we want around here.”
Kuzma’s work is evident in games like his last one. Here is a breakdown of five of his best plays on a scorching night.
The most impressive aspect of Kuzma’s performance was his ability to hit shots from deep, going 6-of-11 on 3-pointers.
Even more eye-opening was the fact that many of those shots were tough looks with a hand in his face that he hit anyway.
Walton has spent much of the season preaching Kuzma on the importance of quality shot attempts, but also is more lenient when the 22-year-old is as hot as he was on Christmas.
On this play, Kuzma’s ability to splash under suffocating defense bails the Lakers out of a tough spot.
They begin with Kuzma and Julius Randle setting a double screen for Jordan Clarkson before Randle sets another pick just for Kuzma, who would typically have a good look at a 3-pointer.
It’s smart play design by Walton, but Taj Gibson is a smart, tough defender who manages to stick onto Kuzma anyway.
So Kuzma, who is blistering hot at this point, decides to turn this into an isolation opportunity. Gibson challenges as well as he could be asked, but Kuzma’s knack for hitting under duress wins the possession.
Kuzma has been unconscious from downtown over the past week, hitting 56.4 percent of his 3-point attempts. Still, his greatest strength in the infancy of his career is his ability to attack the hoop.
He didn’t do as much of that against the Wolves, but had a a veteran-like highlight on a particularly impressive slash.
Here, he gathers the ball just inside the 3-point arc and sizes up Gibson. He waits for the eight-year veteran to reach for a steal before punishing him by ripping through and driving baseline.
Having toasted his man, all that’s left to do is finish. Kuzma does so with a tricky, left-handed reverse layup off the glass.
Kuzma knocked down a season-high nine free throws on 13 trips to the line. While many high-volume foul shooters earn their attempts with some acting, Kuzma got his through some smart decision-making.
On this play, Minnesota aggressively tries to blitz Clarkson on the pick-and-roll. Seeing this, Kuzma backs off to the side, giving JC an easy decision.
Then he is greeted by Karl-Anthony Towns, a 7-footer who could potentially send back Kuzma’s shot attempt. But Towns isn’t the most disciplined defender, so Kuz puts him in the popcorn machine with a pump-fake, gifting himself two free throws.
Kuzma’s biggest challenge of his rookie season has come on the defensive end, where he had mixed results against Gibson (23 points, 11-of-13 FG).
But he showed intellect on a pair of particularly nice possessions that led directly to points for the Lakers.
On the first, Gibson tries to post Kuzma up, but the 27th draft pick knocks the entry pass away for a steal. He starts the fast-break himself, avoids Towns with a wicked behind-the-back dribble and finds Clarkson streaking ahead for the layup.
The second (sped-up) play is a blend of good post defense and playmaking.
It starts with Gibson putting a flurry of moves on Kuzma, who stays home at first but eventually bites on a pump-fake. However, he is able to recover in time for a block and brings the ball up the floor himself.
Then comes an example of something the Lakers have focused on all season: slash-and-kick playmaking.
With assists leaders Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram out due to injuries, Kuzma showed a nice bit of distributing with four assists.
Here, he drives on Gibson and draws Towns over to help before kicking out to Larry Nance Jr. for the wide-open jumper. It’s a simple read, but one that will be invaluable to Kuzma as defenses start packing the paint to prevent his slashing.