Kyle Kuzma at practice

The Next Steps: Kyle Kuzma

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

The offseason between a player’s rookie and sophomore season is considered by many to be one of the most crucial of their career.

So Kyle Kuzma used this valuable time to reshape his body and absorb lessons from one of the greatest to ever wear the purple and gold uniform.

“When he steps on the court for opening night, you’ll just see how he’s just completely changed his physique,” General Manager Rob Pelinka said in an interview with ESPN LA 710. “His back is stronger, his shoulders. He spent a couple sessions with Kobe working out down in Orange County on his footwork. He’s been hitting the track. Big changes in his game.”

At his exit interview in April, Kuzma said that the front office told him to “get your body to an all-time level,” and the 23-year-old seems to have done that based on his more muscular build.

While just about every basketball player would benefit from becoming stronger and faster, only a handful can receive footwork lessons from Kobe Bryant and put them into practice.

But all evidence from Kuzma’s rookie year says that he is that type of player. Armed with skyhooks, turnaround jumpers, spin moves and much more, Kuzma’s toolbox was filled with a greater variety of shots than most veterans, much less his fellow rookies.

His baseline fadeaway, in particular, looked eerily reminiscent of Bryant’s trademark shot.

Bryant was the owner of arguably the best footwork in NBA history, and Kuzma is already elite in the areas where that matters most. Perhaps lessons from the Mamba can further unlock Kuzma’s potential as a scorer heading into his sophomore year and beyond.

As a rookie, Kuzma averaged 1.12 points per possession in isolation, shooting a whopping 49.2 percent on such attempts. Among players who took at least 50 iso shots, only MVP James Harden (1.22) and Kyle Lowry (1.15) averaged more ppp.

He was nearly as impressive on post-ups, where his 1.01 ppp and 58.0 percent shooting placed him among the NBA’s 85th percentile.

There are few types of players more valuable in today’s NBA than those that can create their own shot out of nothing. Kuzma appears to be one of those guys, and has spent the offseason working with Bryant, one of the greatest shot-creators of all-time.

Kuzma’s lethality on both iso attempts and post-ups speaks to his distinct, modern skill set.

While he played a traditional power forward role in college, he was given more freedom to flex his unique strengths — including 3-pointers, ball handling and the aforementioned skyhook — as a rookie.

At his exit interview, he relayed that the front office wanted him to continue that trajectory and “approach the summer by really just being a basketball player” instead of focusing on typical big-man responsibilities.

The example Kuzma gave was rather than focusing exclusively on areas like the pick-and-pop, they wanted him to also include shooting off pin-down screens and handling out of pick-and-rolls.

Considering Kuzma’s skill set, it’s not surprising that the Lakers’ decision-makers see potential in these departments.

Kuzma is already one of the Lakers’ best shooters, and hit the fourth-most 3-pointers of any rookie in league history last year (159).

But he was surprisingly ineffective when it came to shooting off screens, hitting just 35.2 percent of his attempts and placing in the NBA’s 29th percentile.

But with a pure shooting ability and beyond-his-years footwork, Kuzma has the potential to take a huge leap in this area.

Likewise, Kuzma’s ability to handle the ball means that he should be able to punish opposing bigs out of pick-and-rolls. However, this wasn’t reflected in his below average numbers as the ball handler (41st percentile; 0.77 ppp).

Still, he certainly improved this facet of his game over the season’s last couple months, when injuries to the likes of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram led to him playing on the ball more.

Although the Lakers have a roster full of ball handlers — including Ball, Ingram, LeBron James and Rajon Rondo — becoming more proficient attacking out of pick-and-rolls certainly won’t be a backward step for Kuzma, who faces (and could take advantage of) more plodding bigs than his teammates.

Last season, Kuzma’s saw more opportunities to use pick-and-rolls when injuries to teammates forced him to play down a position at small forward.

While the Lakers have plenty of wings — Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart and Lance Stephenson among them — positional flexibility is key for Kuzma, considering the unpredictable nature of injuries across an 82-game season.

“The coaching staff allowing me to play the three this year really helped me evolve my game,” Kuzma said at his exit interview. “Just show people some things that I’ve probably never really showed. Never really had the opportunity to play on the wing until coming here.”

Kuzma is also looking to show improved effectiveness on the defensive side of the ball, where he has taken lessons from new teammate and four-time All-Defensive honoree Rajon Rondo.

“(Rondo) pulled Kuzma up to the film room, and just the two of them, with our film guy, were watching defensive clips on Kuz already in the offseason,” coach Luke Walton told ESPN LA 710.

Given how gifted he is on the offensive end, Kuzma definitely has the most room for improvement defensively.

Despite being 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, he was often able to hang with his man in the post. In fact, opponents averaged 0.89 points per possession on post-ups against him, which ranked in the 50th percentile.

This average standing isn’t a bad starting spot for a young player who is often smaller than his man, and it helps that Kuzma has noticeably added muscle over the offseason.

Kuzma’s defensive development could also be the key for the Lakers’ switching defense.

The Lakers switch more than just about every team in the NBA, which is notable since the clubs that have gone deep into the playoffs — such as Golden State, Houston and Boston — all employ switching defenses to combat their opponent’s star players.

And the most important aspect of a switching scheme is the ability to have five solid defenders on the court at once. If even one player is below average, the opponent will simply call for screens until that man is stuck in an unfavorable matchup.

The Lakers could be lethal on both sides of the floor with a small-ball lineup that puts LeBron James at center and surrounds him with L.A.’s young core.

James is a six-time All-Defensive honoree. Ball, Hart and the long-armed Ingram have all shown much defensive potential. (Rondo, KCP and Stephenson could also sub into this lineup.)

The crucial aspect will be having Kuzma — whose scoring is essential to the group’s offense — able to switch with reasonable effectiveness onto all-stars like James Harden and Kevin Durant.

Kuzma had some issues defending in isolation last year, as opponents scored 1.02 ppp against him in such situations, placing him down in the 25th percentile defensively. Because of these struggles, opponents attacked him often. Kuzma faced 102 shots out of isolation last season, the second-most of any Laker.

The good news is that Kuzma has showed encouraging signs on the defensive end, with quick feet and overall instincts. His work ethic is unquestioned and his potential is evident. How quickly Kuzma can bolster his defense will be a key factor in the potency of the Lakers’ best lineups.

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