How Kuzma Has Improved and Inspired in 2nd Season

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Tougher than developing the elite ball-handling that Kyle Kuzma has already made his top priority for the coming offseason. No, not quite as hard as shooting 40 percent from three-point range or becoming an NBA All-Star, two of Kuzma’s loftiest goals that went unachieved in his second NBA season.

Turning potential into professional?

It’s still crazy difficult. Rarely happens in this league, much less happens super-fast. So many one-hit wonders, so few successful sequels.

That’s because talent is one thing … and consistently maximizing talent is completely another.

That’s why it’s so fulfilling to understand what Kuzma has accomplished this season in going from potential to professional.

As much as everyone loved them some Kuzmania, that rookie underdog 27th overall pick is gone. In his place stands someone whose understanding of the NBA game, job and lifestyle is already more advanced than just about every veteran in this league. Those in the Lakers’ inner circle have gone from pleasant surprise and hope over his first-year work ethic, drive and talent … to trusting all of this is the real deal in Year Two.

Kuzma guards Gallinari of the Clippers

Kuzma guards Gallinari of the Clippers

Those who don’t care to scratch beyond the surface of this disappointing Lakers season won’t get it, but Kuzma is willing to tell you if you truly want to know. He has grown across these calendar days in ways you need a diary to judge, not a snapshot.

“I’m very weird from what I do,” he said before launching into a quick tutorial on bouncing back from a poor shooting game: How to Shake Off a 4-for-20 Shooting Game, by Kyle Kuzma. (Quick gist: “Look at the context of your misses.” If a bunch of them were rim-outs or easy misses, don’t even sweat it!)

It’s an inspiration to see someone so willingly embracing or redeeming his weaknesses. The way Kuzma sees it, why not study those weaknesses so he can carry even more confidence in the future? “It just adds to your chip on your shoulder,” he said.

At the same time, Kuzma has gained the maturity to avoid being swallowed up by those negativities and insecurities. He shared his second-year approach and learning with Lakers.com.

“I criticize myself after every game about little things,” Kuzma said. “Every game, I try to think of three things I could’ve done better—and then just blank the game out. I may score 40; I still try to think of something I could’ve done better. Then that game’s over, and I’m on to the next one.

“Two hours after the game, just try to think, try to knock it out. What I’ve learned is you can’t really stay on a high horse, can’t really dwell on a part of the season. Games come fast; you play every other day, so you can’t go into the next game thinking about some [expletive] you did in the past game. You’ve got the next game coming. It’s really helped my confidence—staying where I need to stay.”

A pro. Already a true pro.

As any gym rat such as Kuzma knows, what’s truly real is the work, the figuring-it-out introspection, the muscle failure on the last rep, the willingness not just to watch your blown defensive rotations and overly nervous feet in poor defensive stance but to text your head coach for full clarification on how blown and poor they were.

“A young player in this society, they just think, ‘You’re perfect. You gotta be perfect,’ ” Kuzma said. “In all reality, when you’re a young player, you’re far from perfect.”

That’s what being comfortable in a young person’s skin sounds like, and it’s a platform for both jumping into the league’s top 50 in charges drawn this season and seizing the All-Star Rising Stars MVP award.

Even in as lightweight a game as that Rising Stars exhibition, Kuzma applied what he has quickly learned about NBA shot selection, an area often harped on by Lakers coaches during Kuzma’s rookie season.

Despite more attempts, more points (18.9 per game) and mourning the drop-off in his three-point ball this season, Kuzma is shooting 46.7 percent from the field after 45.0 last season.

Kuzma gets a shot up against Phoenix

Kuzma gets a shot up against Phoenix

“Understanding when and when not to take shots,” he explained. “Last year, I would take a crazy three or a drive to the rim at certain points of the game when the game is tight, like maybe first quarter, when everybody’s in their rotations early in the game, or randomly at the start of the fourth when it’s not really loose yet. It’s all about trying to find those loose moments in the game where the flow is there—everybody’s up and down, or maybe a couple turnovers and it gets loose like that. That’s how you learn how to strike.”

There is subtlety in a scorer’s mentality, not just aggression. Kobe Bryant used to spot a flaw in an opponent’s first-quarter defensive system he could exploit—but save preying on it until a jugular juncture late in the game. Kuzma is on the same sort of track with how he’s aspiring to next-level thought on game flow, crediting Lakers head coach Luke Walton for teaching him it’s easiest to score against “chaos.”

“It’s all about just pulling myself back and learning the game more, watching it, understanding when you can do things and when you can’t do things,” Kuzma said. “One thing in developing is asking questions, and don’t be afraid of the criticism—constructive, bad, whatever.”

Don’t be afraid to stay committed to what you believe, either.

One thing in developing is asking questions, and don’t be afraid of the criticism—constructive, bad, whatever.

Kyle Kuzma

“It’s a miss-or-make league,” Kuzma said. “Make the shot, nobody cares. But if you miss it, then everybody cares. That’s one thing that has really helped, the biggest thing in my confidence offensively, is having that mentality: People are going to say whatever, so why not just try to make the damn shot?”

That’s the black mamba’s tongue practically coming out of Kuzma’s mouth as he speaks, and Kuzma prides himself on having a Kobe-like determination. Yet Kuzma is honest with himself about things that don’t feel right.

“I’ve still got to slow down on offense,” he said. “I still play a hundred miles per hour sometimes. I have games or I have streaks in the games where I’m slow, and I’m trying to stay in that mental mind state. And there are games or possessions the next quarter, I just start speeding up again.

“I’ve shown I’ve been able to score a lot now with my head cut off. So when I have it neutralized and controlled and the dust settles, I think that I can do anything efficiency-wise.”

The goal is balance between being Flint’s “Kyle from the Y” who always trusted practice would produce improvements and this latter-day “Kuz” who dreams of having a global impact on society.

It’s just that Kuzma wants an awful lot more improvements (and also really yearns for that global impact).

He envies other scorers’ “unlimited handle to where they can get to any spot they want.” He imagines how his playmaking should improve dramatically along with that. Gotta have more strength, especially for defense, despite that being a primary source of progress last offseason. He cited his leadership skills; “I just call it a weakness,” he said.

It’s enough to wonder whether the greatest threat to Kuzma’s future is self-inflicted pressure.

Consider that goal to shoot 40 percent on three-pointers—compared to the reality of being at only 31.3 percent this season.

Part of it is the stuff about playing too fast, “being antsy to do the next thing,” he said. His plan is to master a repeatable shooting form that won’t sway in any direction, one that will calmly hold its follow-through even with a defender running at him.

He was better at repeatable form last season when there were fewer expectations (and he shot 36.6 percent on threes). Just listen to him talk about the three-point shooting this season: “It really annoys me.“

But this year has really taught me you’ve got to appreciate how far you’ve come, what you’ve done.

Kyle Kuzma

“I changed it literally six times this year. It was ridiculous,” he said. “It’s really crazy. It’s not even me changing it. It’s just like me changing little things like: ‘OK, you’ve got to land like this every time.’ Or ‘You’ve got to hold this tight every time.’ Or ‘You’ve got to flick it more every time.’ It’s always something different where it may work for a couple games, and I kind of get sidetracked, and it goes back.

“Last year, I think I had a more consistent, confident level of my shot to where I’m just doing this every time and I’m not even thinking about how my feet got to land every time, where I’m just doing it natural.”

He is frustrated, obviously.

“Overanalyzing, overthinking stuff,” he said. “But it’s all good.”

Wait, what?

“It’ll happen, I know it will,” he said.

There it is: the even keel that Kuzma has figured out in his second NBA season works best for him.

Asked how he feels about his progress this season, separate from the Lakers’ record, Kuzma said: “The old me would’ve been dissatisfied, because I always think about how to improve. ‘(Expletive), I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this.’ That’s how I’ve always been.

Kuzma celebrates with Brandon Ingram and LeBron James

Kuzma celebrates with Brandon Ingram and LeBron James

“But this year has really taught me you’ve got to appreciate how far you’ve come, what you’ve done. And there’s a lot that I haven’t done this year that is something you can work on for next year. But I’ve done a lot of great stuff that I never imagined could be there so soon, in my second year. Look how much you really accomplished in a year and three-fourths in the NBA.”

He’s already one of the greatest success stories among those drafted as late as he was. And it should be mentioned given the Lakers’ injury issues that Kuzma has also proved durable in his career to date: His 2,401 minutes far exceeded all the other Lakers young players last season. Upon returning from an ankle sprain with his efficient 34-minute run in the Lakers’ Tuesday victory in Chicago, Kuzma reached the 2,000-minute plateau again and has logged almost 300 more minutes than any teammate this season.

Sometimes spectacular. Increasingly unshakable.

“The only things you can really control are focusing on what you need to do and giving maximum effort,” he said.

You know the fashion-forward, bold-talking Kuzma is perfectly willing to preen like a peacock.

But that’s also the bird that understands the value in staying grounded.

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

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