After an eventful summer that saw the Los Angeles Lakers finally land Anthony Davis in a massive trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, they would finally appear to be back.
They now boast two of the very best players in the game in Davis and LeBron James and still have one young holdover from their rebuilding period: Kyle Kuzma.
For years, the Lakers rebuilt their once-great franchise around young players that they selected in the NBA Draft such as Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac, Jordan Clarkson, Thomas Bryant, Larry Nance Jr, and Kuzma. All of them — save for Kuzma — now wear different uniforms as a result of either trade or in the case of Randle and Bryant, Los Angeles let them walk away in free agency.
Ultimately, while each of them had their merits as basketball players, the Lakers have always been about All-Star players and when the time came to make the big move, general manager Rob Pelinka pulled the trigger, sacrificing the young core in order to land one of the very best in the game in Davis.
During the negotiation process, rumors circulated that Kuzma was the player the Lakers fought to keep, which was a surprise to some. Despite his clear talents, the accepted thinking was that Ball and Ingram offered more upside thanks to their physical gifts and the fact that both are more than three years younger than Kuzma.
However, Kuzma, who was a steal with the No. 27 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, has a deal that will pay him just under $2 million for the 2019-20 NBA season and $3.5 million after that, which is a bargain for a player of his caliber. On the other hand, Ingram and Ball — both former No. 2 picks — will make $7.2 and $8.7 million next season respectively with the former presumably getting a pay raise in restricted free agency next summer and the latter having another year at $11 million.
For a Lakers team that was looking to get the most out of every dollar around the massive deals of James and Davis, Kuzma’s deal is a luxury to have.
On the floor, Kuzma also adjusted to playing alongside James better than Ball or Ingram did, though both of them did get better as the Year 1 went on. Kuzma thrived off the attention that James drew, waiting for the inevitable moment when his defender would turn his head to focus on the latter before slipping to the basket for an easy two. James averaged 8.3 assists per game last season and 27% of them were created from passes to Kuzma, which is the most on the team by far.
The second-most happened to go to JaVale McGee, who the Lakers also retained. Clearly, hanging on to James’ favorite targets was a priority.
Of course, the Lakers see Kuzma as a lot more than simply a cutter. They see him as the prototypical modern wing, a player who is versatile enough to space the floor, attack off the bounce, and make smart passes when asked to.
There’s work to be done but the path forward for Kuzma is clear. He racked up assists for James while shooting a disappointing 30% on three-pointers and just 32% on wide-open attempts, which he will see plenty of playing alongside Davis and James. Knocking down those shots will be critical, but there is a good reason to believe that he can do just that.
As a rookie, Kuzma knocked in 39% of his wide-open threes, which makes a huge difference in how worried defenders have to be about him behind the arc. On a team featuring James and Davis, the Lakers will need Kuzma to become a consistent threat from downtown once again in order to stretch opposing defenses to their breaking point. Missing those shots lets the defense off the hook to focus on James, which was the case too often last season.
Still, even with the poor shooting, Kuzma’s 18.7 points per game last season were the most from any Laker not named LeBron James or Kobe Bryant since the 2010-2011 season when Pau Gasol averaged 18.8. Had his shot stayed at the same level as his rookie season, Kuzma would have become the first Lakers not named Bryant, James, or Shaquille O’Neal to average 20 points per game or more since Cedric Ceballos did it in the 1995-96 season.
As much as we fondly remember Kuzma on the break and receiving hit ahead passes from Ball, he struggled in transition when asked to do anything other than catch and finish. In particular, as the ball handler leading the break, he rated in just the 16th percentile according to Synergy, so what will likely be a slower tempo Lakers team next season may actually improve Kuzma’s efficiency.
Defensively, Kuzma has had his struggles, particularly in situations that required him to make a split-second reaction to a situation. On that end of the floor, the slightest miscue can be exploited, and Kuzma will have to get better at stopping the ball on the perimeter to make up for his lack of size and rim protection in the paint.
That said, one of the best things about Kuzma is his self-awareness. He consistently works to shore up weaknesses in his game, and actually rated in the 61st percentile defensively last season per Synergy.
Perhaps most importantly, at just 24, he lines up with the prime of Davis. With James turning 35 in December, the Lakers need other pieces to sell Davis on a bright, sustainable future before he hits free agency in 2020. Kuzma figures to be central to that pitch, and thus, his development will be one of the most important subplots of the season.
With reasonable growth in a few key areas, Kuzma could make a big leap for the Lakers next season and with the goal of winning an NBA championship, they are going to need it.