After getting selected 27th overall in the 2017 draft, expectations were subdued for Utah product Kyle Kuzma as he entered Year-1 with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was only right. After all, with Los Angeles drafting their lead guard of the future and local product Lonzo Ball, and all the noise that came with him, it was logical that a late first-rounder from a non-blue blood college program wouldn’t generate much buzz.
Well, it didn’t take long for Kuzma to generate some.
The 6-foot-9 big man put up an impressive rookie campaign in 2017-18, averaging 16.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 triples per contest on respectable 45.0/36.6/70.7 shooting splits. In what was a historically outstanding rookie class, Kuzma finished with the fourth-most Rookie of the Year votes while finding himself on the All-Rookie 1st Team at the season’s culmination. What’s more, Kuzma completed the year with more Win Shares than Harrison Barnes, Carmelo Anthony and Markieff Morris – three higher-profile names who play similar roles to the first-year Laker.
The most encouraging part for L.A., however, has to be the fact that despite Kuzma’s strong opening career salvos, the Flint native has obvious room for improvement – upside that he should start to reach in 2018-19.
Sure, the offseason addition of LeBron James will undoubtedly help Kuzma, just like it’ll help the rest of the Lakers’ talented young core. But there are reasons beyond that to expect a breakout sophomore campaign for the 23-year-old.
For starters, just from a physical perspective, the way Kuzma has dominated the offseason should better help him hold up against the grueling drag of an NBA campaign, something that’ll become especially important if Los Angeles makes any sort of playoff run. Here’s what Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka had to say about Kuzma’s summer:
Specifically, it’s that improved physique that should help Kuzma improve as a finisher in the painted area – an absolute necessity after how he performed from that area last season. In 2017-18, Kuzma, despite his fantastic package of size and athleticism, shot just 59.0 percent from the restricted area, a worse rate than way too many players with less physical talent than him, such as Delon Wright (59.4 percent) and Jordan Clarkson (59.9 percent).
Too often, Kuzma would get rather easily pushed off his attack point, forcing him to settle for ugly floaters and push shots around the rim:
With a stronger frame more able to absorb such blows, Kuzma’s finishing near the basket should exponentially improve.
That’s not the only area Kuzma has to get better, though.
The former Ute’s spot-up shooting marks from last season need to see an uptick as well. In 2017-18, Kuzma placed in the 48th percentile on spot-up looks, according to Synergy Sports, scoring a meager 0.97 points per possession (PPP) on those opportunities. That was a lower rate than relative non-shooters like Justise Winslow and Elfrid Payton.
Of course, after an offseason of practice, with a shooting stroke already this pretty…
…and simply by getting better looks via LeBron set-ups, there’s no reason to think Kuzma won’t be a more accurate shooter next season. He just needs to work on getting that release point a bit higher and on being more consistent with his balance.
Speaking of the Lakers’ superstar acquisition, James should also help Kuzma, and the rest of the team, with their transition output. Kuzma ranked in the 27th percentile in transition points-per-possession – a downright paltry clip considering his physical tools. Kuzma’s 0.98 PPP on open-floor chances was the 12th-worst mark among players with at least 150 such opportunities, lower than far less athletic players such as Buddy Hield and E’Twaun Moore.
Regardless, with James leading the break and Kuzma flying down the wing, his athleticism and touch should really get to shine.
It’ll be interesting to note how the Lakers use one of Kuzma’s biggest strengths from his rookie-year campaign – his one-on-one bucket-getting prowess – with James in the fold. Obviously, a player as accomplished and freakishly incredible as LeBron demands as many touches as possible. But perhaps on certain possessions to give James brief respites while on the floor, or during stints with the four-time league MVP on the bench, head coach Luke Walton can cater some offensive looks around Kuzma’s isolation explosiveness.
Last year, Kuzma ranked in the 92nd percentile on one-on-one looks, producing 1.12 PPP, a higher rate than Kevin Durant (1.06 PPP) and Damian Lillard (1.06 PPP), albeit on a much smaller sample size. Kuzma did a fantastic job of knowing which way to attack specific defenders. Against like-size adversaries, he would face-up and blow by the opposition using an unfairly quick first step. And versus smaller foes, the floor-spacing forward smartly used his size to get off clean looks over untroubling contests.
There are a few other things Kuzma has to work on – primarily, his defense and rebounding – but with more experience, an improved physique and better stamina, those weaknesses should become less problematic going forward.
All in all, now would be a smart time to buy stock in the Year-2 rendition of Los Angeles’ promising stretch-4.
Thanks to his added strength, plus a little help from a new super teammate – and merely by projecting Season-1 to Season-2 improvement typical of young players with Kuzma’s level of talent – we expect to see the tatted-up bucket-getter post a huge year in 2018-19, and contribute to the best Laker team in at least a half-decade.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.