The Enigma that is Kyle Kuzma
With his third season in the NBA all but complete, the Lakers and their fans are still trying to decipher what the current and future ceiling actually is for the 24-year-old.
Welcome to issue #5 of Throwdowns. I apologize for the minor delay since my last post, especially in terms of Lakers’ content, but with the regular season beginning to shift into the final stretch you can confidently expect more consistent releases.
Speaking of consistent releases, onto this edition. Let’s Throwdown.
With three minutes left in the third quarter of a three point game, Kyle Kuzma found himself face to face with the closest semblance to Death there is in the NBA — Kawhi Leonard.
Initially checking the 240 pound ball of energy that is Montrezl Harrell at the top of the key, Kuzma was forced to switch off the Clipper big and onto their star wing after a stationary DHO. This is when a sudden jolt was seen rattle through the Laker.
His arms wide, and flapping. His anxious feet shading and mirroring Leonard’s gravitational pull to the right side. Then came an outstretched contest. A delayed one, as he was caught by surprise at the 3-point hoist, but a contest nevertheless.
Leonard missed, and Kuzma watched as his team secured the rebound before trotting back on offense. A small, individual victory for the 24-year-old who has struggled to come across many this year.
Despite being a legitimate rotation piece on the team with the best record in the Western Conference and a key contributor during an impressive weekend sweep of the Bucks and Clippers, there is no sugarcoating the fact that Kuzma’s junior campaign has underwhelmed.
There are of course contextual reasons that should be considered. The lingering injury that held him out of training camp and the start of the regular season. The move from behind the wheel, to shotgun and now the backseat with the arrivals of both LeBron James and Anthony Davis to the team in consecutive two seasons.
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images
Diagnosing why Kuzma has not reached that in-house “third-star” marquee many envisioned first requires comprehension of what those expectations actually entail. Which in his case, almost entirely involve scoring.
It only takes a mere gander at Kuzma’s basketball-reference page to recognize the disconcerting pattern that arises — he is posting career lows nearly across the board.
While this once again needs the additional context that sometimes is absent when strictly looking at a box score, it does help indicate which areas he has struggled in.
Playing nearly all his minutes this year as a reserve and next to two high-usage players in James and Davis (36.3% and 27.5%) in those other instances, logically means a certain level of drop-off in terms of touches. So this points per game averages being down is explainable strictly from an opportunity perspective.
But another glaring factor for why his scoring and efficiency tallies are down is the sheer fact that he more often than not misses. A lot. Specifically, from three.
Among the 127 players who have attempted at least 200 attempts from behind the arc this season, Kuzma is 122nd in terms of conversion rate (29.9%). A number that is in reality, fightingly inflated due to his absurd shooting from the corners (50%).
After a summer publicly working with a shooting coach, and the expected boon of more open shots with two stars now on the team, the optics were encouraging enough that Kuzma could put what many chalked up as a sophomore slump behind him.
Instead, he has drastically slid. Particularly on his above the break chances (25%) which since the start of February, he is converting on at a dire 17% clip.
Beyond simply missing on his non-corner 3-point chances, his shot profile has also seen questionable tuning this year. As the graph above indicates, Kuzma is attempting a career low percentage of his attempts at the rim, and in return has seen a career high of shots come from the midrange area.
This would not be all that bad if say he were Chris Paul or Kevin Durant, prolific marksman within the in-between spaces of the floor and the analytics era in general.
But alas, he is not.
In fact, he is shooting a career worst 37% on his midrange opportunities according to Cleaning the Glass. And from the rim? where his chances have dipped by a whopping 10% compared to last year? he is shooting a career high (73%). An irony that is strangely fitting given what has become an oddity of a season.
More often than not however, field-goal percentages, points, etc, disguise what is in fact the root problem to a player’s struggles. Beside the surface level makes or misses, another question that has popped up this year and during Kuzma’s tenure in Los Angeles, is what is he actually good at?
As a rookie, Kuzma was an offensive dynamo in isolation netting nearly 1.2 points per possession in one-on-one chances. Perhaps foreshadowing potential go-to-scorer upside. That has no longer been the case these past two seasons as the the graph indicates. Nor will it likely be a staple going forward with James and Davis in tow.
Aspects like his spot up numbers, which are mostly still strong due to his ability to attack close outs, and his transition efficiency feel less concrete in terms of figuring out how he should be deployed.
He benefitted last season as James’ leading assist target by cutting and positioning himself in crevices as a release valve when James found himself in trouble. But this year, he has struggled finding his rhythm consistently as he is at best the third option.
Often found plopped in a corner during half-court possessions like a toy whose owner has suddenly outgrown, Kuzma’s role and minutes have largely been out of his control. With that said, he has also not made the best of the hand that he was dealt. A balance he and the team will need to figure out going forward.
While his scoring continues to fluctuate, his defense on the other hand has suddenly come on in a strong way. A revelation that was not completely expected given his horrific rookie showing.
He is not a lockdown stopper to be clear. But what Kuzma has proven to be recently — is capable. Which when considering he hovers over 6’8” and is equipped with good foot speed, has the potential to be a big development for a team who had lacked perimeter wing defense early on.
So what is the cause for the recent turnaround? The inclusion of Markieff Morris on the roster in particular, has helped pave the way.
Morris’ ability to slot in at either the four or five spot has allowed the 24-year-old to settle into his more natural wing position and better use his physical skills to contain opposing perimeter players opposed to banging down low with more stout bigs.
Kuzma, even with his recent strong showing, will still likely not be looked upon come the playoffs to guard the opposition’s star perimeter players. And that’s okay. Simply displaying he can hang against upper echelon teams without being hunted on defense is a glaring improvement.
That development in itself should give Lakers’ fans hope that there are fragments of promise still left to be unraveled if given enough time. Something this team suddenly has very little of left.
What Kuzma ultimately showed so much promise in initially, has strangely eluded him. Begging the question if his breakout introduction to the league was merely a mirage, or a glimmering glimpse of what is possible if put in the right environment and allowed to properly season.
Whether the answer to that question is given while he is a member of the Lakers is still anybody’s guess. But at this very moment, and on this very team, he is slowly starting to put some things together.
One defensive rotation, and puzzle piece at a time.
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