LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma
LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma laugh during practice at the UCLA Health Training Center on Oct. 16, 2018.
(Ty Nowell/Los Angeles Lakers)

Kuzma Looks to Take Next Steps with Defense First

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

Kyle Kuzma knows that the knock on him in his rookie year was about his defense.

It was the biggest focus of his offseason, and that distinction remains with two days remaining until the regular season opener.

For Kuzma, much of his defensive improvement has stemmed from film sessions. Last year, he wasn’t so much dedicated to tape breakdown, but that has changed with a couple of new teammates who are famous for their basketball IQs.

Now, Kuzma often texts clips of himself to LeBron James, Rajon Rondo and coach Luke Walton, seeking their opinions on how to improve.

“I remember last year being lost a lot on the defensive end,” Kuzma said at Tuesday’s practice. “The film just kinda cures all that up.”

Kuzma feels that dedication has been on display with his on-ball defense this preseason.

“I think I did a better job this preseason of not getting blown by; moving my feet,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest area. Last year guys were really getting past me across positions. The next step is just learning that five position, getting better at that.”

Kuzma’s development at the center spot is a key for the Lakers’ season.

JaVale McGee has carved out his role at the five position, but the Lakers have more minutes at center that need to be filled.

Traditional options include Ivica Zubac and injured rookie Moe Wagner. But the Lakers’ dedication to positionless basketball makes the idea of a small-ball center like Kuzma more enticing.

Walton has liked how communicative Kuzma has been on the defensive side in preseason, but there is more to defense, especially at center, than talking.

The head coach highlighted a play against Golden State on Friday when Kuzma called out everything correctly, but reacted too slowly to the opponent’s pass.

“He’s talking a lot more, and that’s a big step for us,” Walton said. “Now we need him to not just talk, but put action behind that talk.”

While so much of Kuzma’s attention has been set on defense, Walton is also certain that the 23-year-old has room to grow offensively.

He scored 16.1 points per game last season — tying Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle for the team lead — yet Walton feels that he can be even more effective when he starts making immediate decisions when it comes to shooting, passing and slashing.

“One of the great things about Kuz is he wants to be great,” Walton said. “So he works on his ball handling, his shooting, his playmaking. I think he can take a big step with the offense as he continues to be decisive with what that is.

“If he’s open, we want him shooting. If there’s someone on him, just move [the ball] on. If they’re over-closing him, penetrate. And just keep it that simple, because he’s good at all those things.”

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