For the past few uncomfortable years, the Los Angeles Lakers have been rebuilding their depleted roster, searching for the next star to be their cornerstone. They drafted Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball in the lottery over a four-year span, hoping that each would become the player that could lead them into a post-Kobe Bryant world.
The jury is still out on Ball and Ingram, Randle will be a free agent this summer, and Russell has already been exiled to Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the guys who look like future superstars of the last few drafts- Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid – all landed elsewhere.
Fortunately, the Lakers may have stumbled onto what they were looking for in an unlikely place: the end of the first round. With the 27th overall pick in last summer’s draft, they selected Utah forward Kyle Kuzma, who has promptly gone nuclear on any and all expectations for him this season.
As of this writing, Kuzma is third overall in points per game in this rookie class, which is even more impressive when one considers that he is averaging less than 30 minutes per game. A good-but-not-great scorer in college, Kuzma figured the game out at just the right time and has emerged from his hardwood cocoon as a pure flamethrower in the NBA.
The modern NBA is built around position-less basketball, with the ideal lineup featuring five versatile players who can, in theory, occupy any spot on the floor. Kuzma fits this definition perfectly, with his 6’9” height providing him the optimal size to do a little bit of everything. He’s big enough to defend in the paint but still quick enough to chase opponents on the perimeter, a critical skill set in an NBA where forcing switches via pick-and-roll is the go-to offense for most teams.
On the offensive end, Kuzma is duct tape, able to fix anything and everything. He reads defenses well enough off the dribble to anticipate where help is coming from and then makes the right pass for an easy score. He isn’t a passing wunderkind like a Ball, but he makes the right play nearly every time.
He can step outside and shoot just well enough to keep defenses honest (33 percent from three) and is hitting an absurd 75.5 percent from within eight feet of the basket, which is over 18 percent better than league average.
With the Lakers stressing attacking the rim and scoring in the paint, Kuzma has become their deadliest weapon. While we can expect teams to attempt to take away his favorite spots as the season progresses and scouting catches up, Kuzma’s soft touch at the rim combined with his size figures to make him difficult to stop completely.
He often scores at difficult angles after knifing through the lane, more than happy to stretch out his arm for a finger roll when the defense least expects it or hit a leaner off the glass. Kuzma’s soft runner, launched just before lurking bugs can swoop in for the block, is just about automatic.
Despite being a rookie, Kuzma has a calmness about him, a smoothness to his game that’s rare to find in young players. The leap in competition from college to the NBA is huge, and it’s tough for players to just replicate their numbers, let alone improve on them.
Kuzma’s game was made for the NBA. It fits him perfectly, and has made him – and the Lakers -undeniably fun to watch.
With Larry Nance Jr. sidelined due to an unfortunate hand injury, the Lakers opted to slide Kuzma into the starting lineup instead of a veteran like Luol Deng or Randle. It’s not the kind of move that an NBA team would normally make, as the M.O. typically is to bring along rookies slowly and not toss them into the deep end, but Kuzma has proven to be a rare exception.
At every step along the way, from Summer League to the regular season and everywhere in between, Kuzma has exceeded all expectations and handled each new challenge without much difficulty. Before the team could teach him how to crawl, he took off running, and hasn’t looked back.
Even the jump into the starting lineup, which means matching up against the very best the NBA has to offer, hasn’t phased Kuzma. In two games since replacing Nance, he’s notched a double-double in each and been a major scoring threat despite seeing his usage rate plummet.
His efficiency has been so good that it hasn’t mattered much that he’s now sharing the floor with Brook Lopez, Brandon Ingram, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and therefore gets less looks. When Kuzma gets the ball, he simply does good things with it.
Of course, adding Kuzma to the starting five has also carried the benefit of syncing his minutes with those of Ball, who has been the Lakers’ starting point guard since the moment Adam Silver called his name on draft night. During Summer League, Kuzma and Ball quickly developed a chemistry, allowing them to bring the best out of each other, and the hope is that they can continue that in the starting five.
It’s rare for a team to depend so heavily on young players, but if Kuzma keeps this up, he won’t just be filling in for Nance in the starting lineup. The job will be his outright, and he could very well hang onto it for a long, long time.
Perhaps more importantly, if Kuzma can improve just as quickly as he is adapting to the NBA, then the Lakers may well have found the star that they so badly need.
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