For the Los Angeles Lakers to continue their winning ways, they will need consistently good performances from third-year forward Kyle Kuzma.
The former Utah Utes star is the only first-round pick originally drafted by the Lakers who’s still on their roster. Their other recent selections are now on other teams, which helped them land LeBron James and Anthony Davis. As the only young member of their core still around, there were very high expectations for him heading into the season.
Change, of course, was inevitable as Los Angeles pivoted at head coach from Luke Walton to Frank Vogel. The addition of a bonafide superstar in Davis was certain to alter his role as well. Unfortunately, however, Kuzma was unable to play in the preseason to help his adjustment period, as he was recovering from an injury sustained while playing for Team USA.
Before his 2019-20 debut, he said what the Lakers needed is “exactly” what he worked on in the offseason. Considering how much they gave up to land Davis, they are counting on him to be their third option on offense.
But upon his return, he was shooting below the league average mark of 45.3 percent from the field in his first five games back. Kuzma, himself, has spoken to the necessity for many players to get into a rhythm by literally watching the basketball going into the hoop (via Los Angeles Times):
“A lot of scorers, they always say just seeing the ball go in a couple of times, easy ones getting to the rim is definitely going to open a lot of things.”
Part of the blame for this was his shot selection, per Cleaning the Glass, as Kuzma had taken just 17 percent of his attempts within four feet of the rim. Compare that with his frequency in this zone as a rookie (34 percent) and last year (37 percent) and the difference is especially noteworthy.
Vogel recently noted Kuzma was still “finding his way” for where his shots would come from within their new-look style.
Kuzma had looked more like his normal self without Davis, averaging 25.7 points per 36 minutes without his new teammate. The bad news: he struggled to score alongside Davis, averaging just 11.6 points per 36 in his first five appearances this season alongside the big.
Then against the Phoenix Suns, he scored 21 points during the 16.5 minutes he was on the court with Davis. His shot chart shows far more reliance on looks closer to the basket to help supplement his three-pointers, which helped secure their victory over Phoenix. It was the scoring punch that Los Angeles needs when James and Davis are not able to provide it.
However, perhaps because he is recovering from injury, he still seems to be playing without as much aggression so far this season. The 24-year-old is averaging just 3.2 drives per game, significantly lower than his marks in 2017-18 (4.8) and in 2018-19 (6.0) as well. This will be another necessary addition for him as the season progresses.
Most surprising is that the 6-foot-9 forward still has not attempted his first dunk of the season. This was the most apparent during a possession against the Toronto Raptors in which he could have avoided a block if he had gone for a slam instead of a layup.
Even those have been few and far between, as Kuzma has 16 layups compared to 36 looks from beyond the arc. He has generally not even been near the basket, averaging just 1.3 paint touches per game. That is much lower than his marks both last season (2.5) and the year before (2.4).
Instead, the forward has been used more as a catch-and-shoot option for Los Angeles. He is averaging 0.91 dribbles and 1.88 seconds per touch, both a lot lower than what he recorded in his first two professional seasons.
Kuzma has focused on improving his jumper, working with coach Lethal Shooter to make him a more polished threat from beyond the arc. While the Lakers will need help spreading the floor for James and Davis and hope he can be of service in this regard, that cannot be the only facet of his game if he’s going to be their most-trusted third option.
If he can cut to the basket more often rather than just firing from downtown, he will be a more consistent and reliable option for Los Angeles.