Los Angeles Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma has shown his versatility all season, not just in recent weeks. The first-year forward had demonstrated scoring skill both as a shooter and driving to the basket, as well as flashing a nifty little hook shot and other moves.
But it wasn’t until head coach Luke Walton began playing him out of position at small forward that it became clear just how multifaceted Kuzma’s game could be. “With these extended minutes, he’s found out how to do it, what plays work well for him from the wing spot playing against smaller players,” Walton said.
“It was very, very valuable to his development and growth.”
Walton credited that growth to how as soon as it became clear he would have to ask Kuzma to play out of position on the wing, the rookie started watching tons of film and asking countless questions on what the coaches needed out of him at the position.
It’s paid off, with Kuzma capably filling in for Brandon Ingram as the team’s starting small forward until the latter returned to the lineup on Wednesday against the Dallas Mavericks.
However, while Walton said he’s planning to use Kuzma more at the three in the short term in an attempt to get Lonzo Ball and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope more rest, he knows where he wants Kuzma spending more time long term.
“Eventually I’d like to get him probably more minutes at the four than the three but being able to use him back-and-forth, but for now you’ll see him more at the small forward,” Walton said.
Walton’s vision for Kuzma’s natural position is backed up by his statistics at both spots. According to 82games.com, Kuzma is scoring more efficiently and has posted a higher PER, as well as racking up slightly more assists, while at the four spot instead of the three:
Kuzma still played almost exclusively at small forward against the Mavericks, and feels that his time out of position is helping him improve in one key area. “Defense,” he said.
“I think these past games I’ve been really solid defensively, just really trying to lock in and become a two-way player and not just a scorer. Everybody knows I can score but I want to be a complete player. That’s one thing that playing on the wing has allowed me to really focus on.”
Kuzma’s focus has paid off, as he’s somewhat surprisingly holding opponents to lower efficiency when he’s playing on the wing than he does when he’s playing power forward, via 82games:
And to let Kuzma tell it, that isn’t because things have been easier for him defensively. He says it’s actually been the opposite, but that improved opponents and tougher situations have forced him to lock in more defensively.
“Luke’s probably going to kill me for saying that,” Kuzma said. “But playing the wing, you’re in pick and rolls, you’re in pin-downs and a lot of stuff, so it’s really made me a more alert defender. It’s definitely a good thing for me and my development.”
Ultimately, seeing those types of developments from players like Kuzma is what this Lakers season is all about. And if it takes putting Kuzma in tougher situations to motivate him to be better, there are worse qualities for a young player to have.
Kuzma being able to play multiple positions also vibes with Walton’s long-term plan for the roster, so whichever position Kuzma is ultimately better at, it’s a bigger deal than just being capable of playing both.
“The more players that you can get that understand multiple positions, eventually we can get to where we want to be and that’s just playing basketball. Playing whatever group of players we need to and them feeling comfortable,” Walton explained. “It makes their ability to play defense and guard things as a group much stronger when they know more than just their position.”
Kuzma’s play at both forward spots would appear to put him squarely at the center of that position-less future. That is if Walton doesn’t kill him for saying it’s easier to play one forward position than the other.