Kyle Kuzma interacts with teammates during the Lakers' game against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 29, 2018.
(Harry How/Getty Images)

Kyle Kuzma's All-Around Evolution

by Joey Ramirez
Digital Reporter

Kyle Kuzma is aware of his reputation. He just doesn’t agree with it.

Last season he was second among rookies in scoring. And while few could question his ability to fill the bucket, he took heat for his capacity to protect it.

“I think the narrative is I don’t play defense,” Kuzma said after Sunday’s win over Phoenix. “If you watch how the season progresses, I have been getting better and better every single game, just making the effort. I just want to be a complete player. All great players do it on both ends.”

But Kuzma is in the process of rewriting that narrative, with an assist from his coach, Luke Walton. Rather than having his power forward battle bigs down low, Walton has tasked Kuzma with tracking perimeter players — including recent matchups against Luka Doncic, Bojan Bogdanovic and Josh Jackson.

“He’s done a nice job on those type of players, we’re finding out,” Walton said. “It’s good for him to have a mission out there to be able to focus on defensively. We’re looking for matchups that we can use his size and strength and athleticism to give us an advantage. He’s done a really good job of that.”

Listed at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, Kuzma is far from the prototypical frame to be checking guards and wings. But he has done an excellent job of it over recent weeks, including the Lakers’ current three-game winning streak.

He has even been able to successfully tail Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles — two of the league’s top shooters off screens — around pick after pick.

“I’ve always kinda guarded perimeter guys,” Kuzma said. “I’m a little bit more comfortable guarding guys off screens. It kinda keeps me engaged in the game, locked in. Because if you fall asleep on a shooter, they’re gonna come off that screen and hit, so I don’t wanna get yelled at (laughs).”

Putting Kuzma out on the perimeter has been the biggest cause of his formidable defense — something made possible by the signing of Tyson Chandler. Prior to that, the Lakers had Kuzma play backup center, largely out of necessity.

In the 13 games since Chandler joined, the Lakers have put teams on lockdown, ranking second in the NBA in defensive rating (101.7).

Kuzma, in his new role, has been a huge part of that. The sophomore conceded that he has often times been too conservative on the defensive side, recently shifting his approach to “ultra aggressive.”

And while Walton never questioned Kuzma’s commitment to becoming a plus defender, he was blunt about the results.

“He just wasn’t good at it,” Walton said. “But he had the desire. He’ll text me at 2 in the morning a clip of some film that he’s watching, being like, ‘What should I have done on this?’ He’s been doing that since he got here.”

From taking a charge (see above) to cleaning the glass (29 boards in his last three games), Kuzma’s newfound engagement has bled through every facet of his defense.

Walton relayed that the coaching staff has been pleased with Kuzma’s defense in numerous areas, including individual matchups, team coverages and post battles.

“He’s not allowing anybody to just put a cap on him and say he’s a scorer,” LeBron James said. “He wants to be more than that. He’s been continuing to get better and better. Not only offensively, but defensively as well. He’s just playing all-around solid basketball.”

And the best part about Kuzma’s defensive renaissance has been that it hasn’t come at the expense of his offensive production. He has scored 20-plus points in three of his last five games, after doing so just four times in his first 18.

Kuzma has averaged 18.2 points across that five-game span, even though his 3-point shot hasn’t awoken during it (32.3 percent). And while nearly half of his attempts in that sample have been 3’s, he has been so effective on two-pointers (64.7 percent) that it has balanced out his efficiency.

One of the NBA’s top post scorers last year, Kuzma has gone back to his roots, leading to a sizzling 15-of-19 clip inside the restricted area (plus 6-of-11 in the non-restricted paint) over the last five games.

And Kuzma’s offensive game is developing as well, particularly in the passing department. He has 19 assists in his last five games after dishing just one in his previous five.

Of those 19 dimes, nine have come in transition, as Kuzma has done a nice job of finding the man with the biggest advantage on fast-breaks.

But Walton has been happiest with Kuzma’s distribution in the half-court, making the extra pass by giving up solid looks for himself in the interest of open attempts for teammates.

So when Kuzma sacrificed a floater against the Suns to gift Chandler a dunk, he double-checked that Walton (who got out of his seat and applauded Kuz) was watching.

“Yeah, I pointed at him,” Kuzma laughed. “He’s always talking about me not passing the ball, so I had to make sure he saw that one.”

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