On Kyle Kuzma's Rebounding Renaissance
The forward has put on his hard hat and is gobbling up misses at a staggering rate this season. An especially useful skill given the Lakers' sudden Anthony Davis-sized void.
Welcome to issue #28 of Throwdowns.
It’s been far too long since the last issue of this newsletter, so I will skip the lengthy intro’s this week. But I do want to send a sincere thank you to those who donated to my Venmo (AlexRegla). Any bit goes a long way in keeping Throwdowns sustainable and running.
With that said, let’s move onto this one, which is about appreciating the process of getting one’s hands dirty. One bruise and scrape at a time.
Buying a house — or more precisely — the process of home-buying, consists of a ton of work. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Similar to other monumental stages of life, there are many aspects to the undertaking that one typically does not learn in school nor is accurately portrayed in the movies. Gritty details like what a mortgage consists of, what an HOA covers or who the hell a lender is, really is only learned by experience.
In film, you have a split edit to handle that stuff. A montage in some instances. Sure, there are a few moving boxes in the exterior, some paint splatter on overalls, casual hijinks. But the hard work is mostly left out of frame. Out of picture. Out of mind.
In basketball, rebounding is sort of similar. It’s not the most flashy, the most exciting or even an aspect of the game that takes the most skill. And no kid realistically grows up dreaming of leading the league in rebounds (I have a hunch Jemerrio Jones did).
One just wants the house. To score the basket. And the stuff in-between can be skipped, left for someone else to handle.
But it is ultimately essential. It is hard, and it does take a certain degree of want. The art of rebounding may have been most poetically summed up through Charles Barkley’s famous quote on the subject matter:
“I always laugh when people ask me about rebounding techniques. I've got a technique. It's called just go get the damn ball.”
Although brash, Barkley is right. Without securing the board, a team does not possess a realistic shot of winning the game. So then why is it so undervalued?
Well for one, you’re not likely to land on SportsCenter due to a highlight boxout. You’re also not likely to grab a sponsorship, a shoe deal or a lucrative contract by tipping the ball out to a teammate for an extra possession. Although it is vital to winning.
And it’s within this understanding of the minutia — the dirty work — that helps propel players into “winning” ones. Which is exactly what Kyle Kuzma is becoming right in front of our eyes.
Brian Sevald - Getty Images | Throwdowns Illustration
Although his off-the-court persona may shroud it, Kuzma is a hard worker. A kid who grew up smack dab in Flint. One who did not have a relationship with his biological father growing up. One who entered the league with little fanfare. And one who has had to adjust.
But, that effort has not always translated on the floor. For a majority of his early career, Kuzma built up the reputation of a chucker. A score-first player who played shoddy defense, and one who seemed more driven by personal accolades than actual substance.
That changed however during stretches of last season, most notably in the playoffs, where he made considerable strides and proved to be one of the team’s most reliable rotation players.
This year, the 25-year-old has arguably taken his biggest step yet in shedding previous perceptions. In large part by embracing those aforementioned gritty in-between areas, living in the gunk, and getting the damn ball.
Up until this point, Kuzma by no means has been renowned for his work on the boards, and it has actually been viewed by many as one of his weaknesses both on film and in terms of the data.
In fact, according to the Cleaning the Glass, he has never once finished a season with a fgDR% (percentage of opposition’s misses a player rebounds) over 14.7% nor a fgOR% (percentage of his team’s misses a player rebounds) over 3.6%
This year however, Kuzma is not only currently sporting a fgDR% of 15.6% but as of this newsletter, he also is in possession of a staggering fgOR% of 7.5%
The latter not only ranks in the 97th percentile among forwards this season, but among those who have played in at least 500 minutes, his current rate is the highest in the league. So what’s behind the the eye-popping improvement? The answer is twofold.
Physically, Kuzma has always had the natural skills one envisions a good rebounder having. He’s light and quick on his feet. He’s tall, and he’s long enough to carve out windows where he can reach over smaller players.
Despite those innate advantages, it has been his consistency and engagement level that has plagued him all the way back to his initial draft scouting report despite flashes of ability:
“As a junior, Kuzma averaged 11.6 rebounds per 40 minutes, and he exceled particularly on the offensive glass, where he showed good instincts and nice quickness attacking the ball off the rim. He is not a physical rebounder, but he gets off the floor quickly and uses his 8'11.5 standing reach to effectively pursue loose balls against bigger players.”
“Similar to the inconsistency he showed on defense, his effort on the glass wavered as well. He had five games this season where he had four rebounds or less, and while at times he could get away with average effort in college, he does not have the elite physical tools to coast in the rebounding department versus NBA athletes.”
Through the Lakers’ first 30 games of the season however, Kuzma finally seems to have turned a corner, and has begun to make the effort plays on the boards on a much more frequent basis.
The inconsistencies that became far too consistent in the early portions of his career, have begun to sparse. And in place, stands a player who is working his ass off.
“I’m just trying to get the damn ball, really,” Kuzma said recently. “That’s really it. I’ve been blessed with a nose for the ball and figuring out where it goes off the rim, but other than that, just go get the ball.”
Eerily echoing Barkley’s quote, Kuzma has displayed just that by darting toward the rim to help clean up his teammate’s misses. Shouldering through stronger, and bigger interior trees to try and find some daylight to pop the ball free. And soaring over unsuspecting players who forget to box him out.
In terms of tactical reasons for his improvement, Kuzma’s increased rebound tallies could also potentially be tied into the quality of his teammates.
Predominately playing with some combination of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell or Marc Gasol, the attention defenses can now pay to Kuzma has understandably diminished some.
Operating almost always off-ball these days, this has allowed Kuzma to take advantage of lapse defenders by being proactive instead of simply camping out waiting for the pass. Something he had previously been far too complacent doing, although is something he is vocally not a fan of.
“I don’t really like standing in the corner too much possession after possession,” Kuzma recently said. “So I just try to find ways to bring energy to the game. I’ve got a good nose for the ball and I’m just trying to find it and create second-chance opportunities for our ball club.”
The energy Kuzma referenced may sound cliché, but seems to actually be tangible. On the year, lineups that contain him have an offensive rebound rate of 27.8% (75th percentile) versus 24.2% (38th percentile) when he sits.
Beside the obvious benefits of his development in this area, his activity and production will be relied upon more than ever given the news that Davis will be out for the foreseeable future due to a calf strain and aggravation of his Achilles tendinosis in his right leg.
Kuzma has already started in place for Davis on multiple occasions this season, most recently on Thursday night where he put up 16 points and 10 rebounds (five offensive) in the Lakers’ 109-98 loss to the Nets.
While he can never properly duplicate what the all-star big man provides on a nightly basis, Kuzma’s ability to generate semblances of energy through crashing the glass, diving for loose balls and creating multiple chances could help make up some ground. At least enough for the Lakers to hold water until finally being back to full health.
Kuzma’s career trajectory feels different than what many envisioned it would be after his sizzling start to his career. But, when considering where he is now and how he’s playing, this current stretch feels far more more stable. And far more valuable.
For the first time, arguably ever, Kuzma is no longer skipping steps. He’s getting his hands dirty. He’s fighting for that ball once it clanks off the rim. And more often than not, he’s now the one getting it.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this or any other post in the archive, donations are highly appreciated via my Venmo (AlexRegla). No amount is too small, and it will go a long way in keeping this newsletter going.