The month of December has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers in recent seasons, and 2017 was no exception. They went 3-11 during a brutal stretch that called for games with the Golden State (twice), Houston three times, the LeBron James-led Cavaliers once, and other playoff teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Lakers finished the month with six straight losses en route to a nine-game losing streak that prompted LaVar Ball to claim that head coach Luke Walton had lost the team.
There was, however, a bright spot among a sea of injuries and losses, which was the play of rookie Kyle Kuzma. He started to create a buzz at the Draft Combine in May, opened more eyes in July when he was MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League title game, and earned regular season playing time by leading the team in scoring in the preseason.
Kuzma played well right away. Among his early season efforts was a 20-point game against the New Orleans Pelicans, 22 points against the Trail Blazers, and 21 points against the Nets. The Brooklyn game was his first as a starter, and he had a double-double which included 13 rebounds.
That same month, Kuzma recorded another double-double by scoring 30 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in a loss to the Phoenix Suns. Kuzma was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for October/November.
In 20 games, he averaged a team-high 16.7 points while shooting 50.4 percent overall and a team-leading 37.9 percent from 3-point range. He was the first ever NBA rookie to have at least 330 points, 120 rebounds and 30 threes in his first 20 games.
Kuzma was only the sixth non-lottery pick in NBA history to win the award in the first month of his career. Despite his early success, it was last December when Kuzma really exploded on the scene and became a part of the nation discussion.
By the time the month ended, the movement known as “Kuzmania” had been born. Kuzma’s stellar play began on Dec. 3 when he scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against the Rockets. Some tend to forget that Kuzma was a solid rebounder last year, and in the next game he had 14 rebounds against the Charlotte Hornets.
In an overtime loss to the Warriors, Kuzma scored 25 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and had 3 assists. In his second game against Golden State that month, he finished with 27 points and 14 rebounds. The best was yet to come.
Kuzma made his reputation in two important, high-profile games. On Dec. 20, the Lakers stunned the Rockets in Houston behind 38 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists from Kuzma. He made a career-high 7 three-point shots on 10 attempts.
Then came the nationally televised game on Christmas Day against the Timberwolves. The Lakers lost, but Kuzma finished with 31 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds. It was the first time that a rookie scored more than 30 points in a Christmas game since James did it in 2003.
In December 2017, Kuzma also became the first Lakers’ rookie to score at least 25 points in three straight games since Jerry West did it more than 40 years earlier. Kuzma would go on to have other great games last season.
His 28-point performance in January in a win over the the Boston Celtics was a classic. He scored 17 points and hit five three-point shots in the fourth quarter alone. In the final full game that he was able to play last season before injuring his ankle, Kuzma scored 30 points against the Spurs after scoring 26 points in a match against the Jazz the game before in a duel with fellow rookie Donovan Mitchell who also finished with 26 points.
When the season ended, Kuzma was honored with First Team All-Rookie honors. Not bad for the 27th pick in the Draft. Through it all, Kuzma stayed humble and worked his tail off this past summer to improve on defense and on other aspects of his all-around game.
Many projected that he would have a monster sophomore year. With a quarter of the season finished, some fans are now asking the question, what has happened to Kyle Kuzma? The perception is, not only has he not improved, the level of his play has actually slipped since last year. But is that a fair assessment?
Last season, Kuzma played 31.2 minutes per game and averaged 16.1 points on 45 percent shooting from the floor, 37 percent from deep, 70.7 percent at the free throw line, 6.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.4 blocks per game.
Through 23 games this season, Kuzma is playing 30.8 minutes per, averaging 16.6 points (second-highest on the team) and shooting 47.3 percent from the field. Kuzma’s defense is still a work in progress but is still much improved this season.
Comparing these statistics, Kuzma is actually doing the same or a little better in most statistical categories with one major exception, and therein lays the problem. Kuzma made his name last year as a three-point shooter.
He shot 48 percent from three-point range in Summer League and 37 percent during the regular season, when he set the Lakers franchise record for most threes made in a rookie campaign.
This season, Kuzma’s marksmanship behind the arc has tailed off. He’s seen a slight improvement of late, now at 30.3 percent, but is hurting the team and stopping him from taking a big step forward.
The Lakers are challenged most nights to keep pace with the three-point shooting of their opponents, and when the season began, Kuzma was counted on heavily to be a team leader in this category. It hasn’t materialized.
The question now is whether Kuzma can channel the energy and confidence from last December and have another break-out month. To do so, he’ll have to “bring it” every moment of every game, which at times has been problematic so far this season.
Far too often he has been docile, standing in the corner waiting for someone to pass him the ball, and if they don’t, Kuzma seems content watching his teammates try to win the game without him, especially in the fourth quarter.
Where is the Kuzma who destroyed the Celtics last season in the fourth quarter? Where is the Kuzma who played until he collapsed on the floor in a late season game against San Antonio in which he single-handedly took the game to overtime and won it while playing 44 minutes?
Kuzma has often been aggressive in the first quarter this season before disappearing the rest of the game. In the fourth quarter, in particular, he has been nearly invisible.
He seems hesitant to shoot in big moments, which was certainly not the player of last year who lived for having the ball in his hands with the game on the line.
If Kuzma can channel his focus to get his three point shooting to where it was last year, it is likely that he, and not Brandon Ingram, will emerge as the Lakers second option going forward this season.
But he needs to get the Mamba mentality back. It looks like he is trying to complement James and defer to him that Kuzma has lost the killer instinct of his own. That swagger that made people so excited about him last year is missing this season.
The question now is can he get it back? December would be the perfect time to start.
It is time for Kuzma to stop deferring to everyone else all the time and turn on the jets. After getting to know each other in October and November, the Lakers’ season will turn in no small measure on their record this next month.
Not to mention the fact that after December 15, the front office can start to think about trades if the team is still struggling. It will be interesting to see where Kuzma and the Lakers are positioned at the end of this next month.
Don’t count Kyle Kuzma out just yet.