(Erica Martin/Los Angeles Lakers)
Kuz Control: 41 Points in Only 3 Quarters
You’ll have to forgive Kyle Kuzma, he grew up in Michigan.
The Flint native admitted that his “fondest” basketball memory was when the Detroit Pistons upset the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals. “What a coincidence,” he laughed.
Well, Kuzma’s allegiances certainly aren’t in question after he eviscerated his hometown team on Wednesday, dropping a career-high 41 points on the Pistons, and needing only three quarters to do so.
“If you would’ve told me two years ago in college that I’d score 40 for the Lakers, I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Kuzma said. “Kinda crazy.”
The same could likely be said if you told Kuzma that two days ago, when he struggled through a 4-for-20 shooting night in Dallas.
But the sophomore made plans for when he returned to L.A., hitting up the UCLA Health Training Center on the team’s off day and putting up 500 shots in preparation for the Pistons.
“He was working on his stroke and he was working on his form, from what he’s noticed in the breakdown of his jumper trying to get it [right],” coach Luke Walton said. “It’s not like he just came out and had a hot night. He put in that work.”
Kuzma’s extra reps paid dividends. He scored his 41 points in only 29 minutes, resting the entire fourth quarter with the game in hand.
He put up 22 points in the third quarter alone, including four of his five 3-pointers. This was an especially big development considering that Kuzma — a 36.6 percent 3-point shooter as a rookie — entered the night hitting just 29.7 from deep (before boosting that up to 30.6).
“I know I’m a great shooter,” Kuzma said. “My percentage may not reflect that, but I’m always confident shooting, and I’m always in the gym just trying to put work in every single day. It paid off today.”
third quarter from Kyle Kuzma, including 22 points and four triples.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) January 10, 2019
Lakers got him going early with a double-screen that took his defender, Griffin, completely out of the play. pic.twitter.com/3PMZudMtwq
And while Kuzma has struggled from distance this year, he has still been lethal inside the arc, shooting 58.1 percent on two-pointers (up 7.0 percent from last year).
That was on full display versus Detroit, when Kuzma shot a robust 11-of-13 in the paint, including hitting all eight of his shots in the restricted area.
He got out in transition often, making five shots on the break. And he was similarly effective in the half-court, getting more buckets inside by attacking with his off-the-dribble floater and slipping screens out of pick-and-rolls.
“As long as he keeps his foot on the gas,” Michael Beasley said, “man, the sky’s the limit.”
And Kuzma has the desire to see how high he can push that limit.
After stepping up in LeBron James’ absence on Wednesday, Walton praised Kuzma’s dedication to his game, from his filmwork and gym time to his willingness to contact players like LeBron, Kobe Bryant and Draymond Green, trying to pick up as much as he can.
Kuzma’s all-around skill set is a work in progress. He was unquestionably the night’s best player, though he had only two rebounds and zero assists.
Still, he has averaged 21.7 points, 6.3 boards and 3.2 dimes since the start of December, compared to 16.3, 5.2 and 1.7, respectively, through November.
And defensively he played a key role in holding Pistons star Blake Griffin — who had averaged 30.8 points in his previous four games — to just 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting. The Lakers threw a parade of double-teams at Griffin, with Kuzma serving as the primary defender and limiting the five-time all-star to mainly jump shots.
For someone who opponents sought out to target on defense last year, this has been a key development. With Kuzma’s added focus outside of his individual scoring, Walton was left without a player comparison for his 23-year-old.
“Initially it would be someone that’s just a scorer,” Walton said. “We’ve had those debates. But he wants to be more than that. The way he works and the way he studies, I think he can be. I don’t want to make those comparisons yet, but I do think he’s gonna be and incredible player by the time it’s all done.”