The Los Angeles Lakers suffered a major blow when they lost both All-Stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, to injuries earlier this season. But the absence of the team’s superstars also allowed a few role players to spread their wings as best exemplified by Kyle Kuzma’s form surge in recent weeks.
The 25-year-old forward has been L.A’s leading scorer over the last five games, averaging 19.2 points in addition to 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Kuzma continues his rapid growth erupting for a season-high 30 points in the 115-94 victory over the Sacramento Kings, also adding five rebounds and three assists along the way.
The forward’s emergence as one of the team’s leaders didn’t escape head coach Frank Vogel’s attention. “I think there was growth there by our whole team, but I think Kuz was one of those guys,” he said. “When he reads the defense better, he gets cleaner looks. Knocks a few down and he starts feeling it. He got really hot for us and I think he was a huge part of the win.”
Vogel emphasized Kuzma’s attitude which, he thinks, has been the main factor facilitating his overall improvement. He added the forward’s hard work often makes up for his weaknesses. “Kuz plays hard. That’s the simplest way to put it,” he said. “I’ve never had a problem with when you have a guy like that gives maximum effort on the defensive end. There’s going to be certain matchups that are challenging for him, but you can say that about any player.
“But when he brings a high level of focus and a high level of defensive intensity and effort, he’s going to more than survive out there.”
That effort, Vogel pointed out, played a major role in slowing down Buddy Hield, Sacramento’s sharpshooter and L.A.’s menace who erupted for 29 points when the Kings beat the reigning NBA champions at the beginning of March. Matched up against Kuzma, Hield ended the Friday game with just seven points shooting 1-for-9 from behind the 3-point line.
Vogel thinks the 2019-20 season, when Kuzma rotated between the starting lineup and the second unit while the Lakers cruised toward their 17th NBA title, prepared him to take on the leader’s role in the absence of James and Davis this year. “His positivity, his willingness to do whatever the team needs to win and I think you learn lessons when you win a championship,” he said.
“He’s able to do both [start and come off the bench], but he’s going to play the right way offensively being aggressive reading defense, making extra passes when necessary, and to bring maximum effort on the defensive end.”
Kuzma shows maturity after loss to Bucks
The victory over Sacramento came after the ill-fortuned 112-97 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, when the debuting Andre Drummond injured his big toe in the second quarter. Despite a strong start, the Lakers lost momentum and let Milwaukee outscore them 88-67 after the end of the first period.
Kuzma finished the game with a decent 16 points and seven rebounds, but he still took responsibility for the loss – showing his leadership and proving again he’s fully embraced the new role. “I think I need to be better,” he said. “I think in the first half, I did a really good job of being on the ball and setting guys up, setting the table.
“Then in the second half I didn’t really do that, I kind of became an off-ball shooter so I think being more assertive and getting guys involved, I think that was the No. 1 thing from the first half I could do better.”
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