addByline("Jackson Filyo", "WashingtonWizards.com");
Wednesday night at Capital One Arena, Kyle Kuzma put on one of the best all-around performances of his five-year NBA career, finishing one assist shy of what would have been his first-ever triple-double. With 19 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists, Kuzma led Washington to its third-straight win.
In the eight games prior, the first-year Wizard scored 20-plus points in each game, the longest such streak of his career by two games. And while the 19-10-9 night marked the end of one streak, it was the continuation of an ascendant run of play for the rangy forward acquired in a five-team deal from the Lakers this summer. Over his last nine games, Kuzma is averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, shooting 54.2% from the floor. He’s scored 25-plus points five times and recorded six double-doubles.
Kuzma has started all 40 games in which he’s appeared this season, already eight more starts than he made in Los Angeles last season. His career-high 33.4 minutes per game are nearly five more than the 28.7 he averaged last season. His 21.6 usage rate this season – and 27.3 usage rate in his last nine games – ranks second on the team, trailing only Bradley Beal.
“He understands that he has an opportunity in front of him,” Beal said.
“Fit and opportunity is everything in this league,” Kuzma said. “There’s a reason why there’s only 450 of us playing basketball at a given time. It’s hard as hell to play at this level. I am a firm believer that if you are a confident person and player and you’re in an opportunity to succeed and coach puts you in the right position, there’s no reason why you can’t go out there and be who you want to be in this league.”
Kuzma credits a great deal of his development to the time he spent in Los Angeles. With the Lakers, his role varied greatly. He started just over half of the games he played, always averaged over 25.0 minutes per game – but saw his scoring average dip from a career-high 18.7 in 2018-19 to 12.8 and 12.9 points per game in the two seasons following. Kuzma’s production dip correlated with the Lakers’ acquisition of eight-time All-Star Anthony Davis, who along with LeBron James, helped lead Kuzma and the Lakers to a championship in 2020.
In retrospect, Kuzma sees the value in what he learned during those seasons, even if it meant taking a lesser role with the team. Now, he’s proving his ability to translate what he gathered in that time and apply it when given a chance to play a larger role with another team.
“I credit a lot of my success this season to the last two years, taking a seat and watching some great players play basketball and learning from them,” Kuzma said. “I just knew once I got traded, it was a golden opportunity for me to enhance my game and show everything I’ve learned and what I’m capable of with opportunity. I’m just showing that right now.”
The versatility Kuzma has brought to the Wizards rotation has been immensely valuable on a night-by-night basis – and even more so as the team went through a weeks-long stretch of shorthandedness due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Kuzma has played in all but two games this season and proven valuable all across the lineup. According to the NBA’s positional tracking data, Kuzma has spent 55.8% of his court time at forward, 31.2% at guard and even 13.0% (67 minutes) at center.
“He’s 6’10” and people don’t really realize it,” Unseld Jr. said of Kuzma. “With his size, his ability to play off the bounce, he gets to a spot. He’s a big guy. He uses his body, his leverage. He creates and initiates content and it’s tough to guard.”
“It just gives you a little bit more flexibility when you quote-unquote downsize,” Unseld Jr. continued. “You’re really not going small.”
Kuzma’s best work has come when it matters most. He ranks sixth in the NBA in total clutch minutes (88), which the league defines as any time the game is within five points with five-or-fewer minutes remaining. Among players that have played at least 50 clutch minutes this season, Kuzma ranks first in plus-minus (+59), first in 3-pointers made (14), seventh in points (65) and second in rebounds (26).
“He’s a confident guy,” Unseld Jr. said. “He’s played in big moments. He’s had a big role on a championship team. I don’t know if it’s that or that he’s not worried about it, not afraid of the moment.”
“We know he can make big shots – he’s made big shots all season,” Unseld Jr. said. “He’s staying in attack mode, which is great…When it’s winning time, he’s not afraid of the moment. He steps up play after play.”
The multi-faceted scoring he’s displayed all season is only a portion of the development he’s shown. His 8.7 rebounds-per-game average is 2.4 more than his previous career high and has been bolstered by a remarkable stretch on the boards over the last few weeks.
Kuzma recorded four double-doubles in the first six games games of the season, 10 in the first 19 games – and after a short dip, has rediscovered that rhythm on the boards. In 40 games, he’s recorded 16 double-doubles, one shy of tying his previous single-season high set in 77 games in 2017-18.
That run of rebounding culminated on January 9 in Orlando, when he totaled 27 points and a career-high 22 rebounds, becoming the first Wizards player with 20-plus points and 20-plus rebounds in a game since Antawn Jamison in 2010.
“I told him at the beginning of the year that he should have a double-double every game,” Beal said after Kuzma’s 22-rebound performance. “That’s just easy with his size, athleticism and his ability to push. It’ll make the game easy for him, for me, for everybody if he’s that aggressive on the boards.”
“My biggest thing when I rebound is to play with pace and get up the court,” Kuzma said. “We’re a very dynamic team in transition whether that’s me pushing it or Brad having the ball getting down court pushing with a full head of steam. My biggest thing right now is playing with pace, playing up and down. We’re tough to defend when we’re in those situations.”
Next up: sustaining the success. Throughout his career, Kuzma has never lacked the confidence necessary to become a next-level player in the league. Kuzma’s recent play has caught the attention of his teammates – and shown an entire fanbase what sort of impact he can have on a team.
“Kyle playing at a high level is a big key for our team,” Spencer Dinwiddie said after Kuzma’s 29-point night against the Thunder on January 11. “We talked about that earlier this season. For him, it’s about being decisive – the catch-and-go’s, getting into the paint, things like that. Not anything too wild. Just playing good, good basketball.”
“He can be a really good player in this league,” Beal said. “With his size, his versatility. He has a mismatch every single night. His IQ is super high. I think he doesn’t get a lot of credit for that…He’s a willing learner. He accepts criticism. He doesn’t think too highly of himself. He wants to win. You can see that.”
“I know what I’m capable of,” Kuzma said. “I’m just here to win ball games. Whatever that takes.”