Kuzma Diversifying Role, Including First Steps at Small-Ball Center

Prior to last season, Kyle Kuzma had never played outside of his power forward role.

But injuries forced him to briefly suit up at small forward as a rookie, and Kuzma performed well on the wing. Now he is adding the center position to his repertoire.

“I’ve never really played the five before,” Kuzma said. “I think it’ll be good for us having a small-ball unit, getting out and running and gunning.”

The benefits of playing Kuzma at center are obvious. He’s a lethal scorer who can open up spacing for others with his shooting, and push the pace with his mobility.

The trick will be on the defensive side of the floor.

“You’ve got to be the anchor of the defense at that five position,” Kuzma said. “Call out pick-and-rolls, screens. The five is usually around the rim, so you see everything.”

Kuzma said that playing center on defense makes him more vocal and aware of the other players. Watching film has helped him learn to recognize what he needs to communicate with his teammates.

“The coverages and things like that are obviously different for him at the five spot,” coach Luke Walton said. “He’s been good. It hasn’t been a ton of reps, but we’ve had him out there trying to see if it could possibly work.”

Kuzma’s primary focuses over the offseason were his defense and adding muscle. That latter part was obvious to Walton, who said Kuzma is “much more of a man now, physically.”

The Lakers’ defense is predicated on having players that can switch across positions defensively, and Walton believes that his roster’s combination of “length, versatility [and] smarts” are the ingredients for a “really good” switching defense.

Yet for Kuzma, playing center could require serving as more of a backline paint protector.

“A lot of the stuff we do is one through four switching,” Walton said. “When you’re the five, we don’t want to switch point guards onto [our] bigger players. It’s more about our traditional coverages.”

However, the Lakers’ defense took a huge jump last season — from 30th in efficiency the year before to 12th — in part because of Julius Randle’s ability to switch onto guards from the center position. With Randle now on New Orleans, Kuzma could occupy that role for the upcoming season.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re trying [Kuzma] out there,” Walton said. “We liked that versatility that Julius gave us.”

While Kuzma’s journey at center could have huge ramifications for the Lakers’ season, his ability to play multiple spots speaks to the Lakers’ vision for “positionless basketball.”

In fact, much of his offseason progress included working on skills that are typically exclusive to guards.

“I’m looking for more pick-and-rolls; not necessarily always being that popper,” Kuzma said. “It’s good. Luke has the interchangeable offense, and it allows me to do those things.”