The Los Angeles Lakers are currently playing without Brandon Ingram, who in a best-case scenario would manage to return from a groin injury on Sunday. With Josh Hart also unavailable, the team is dangerously thin at the wing position.
Ingram is being replaced in the lineup by Kyle Kuzma, which is a story in itself. Kuzma has flown under the radar the past two months after a spectacular start to his career. In the NBA, even the No. 1 overall pick in the draft starts off adjusting to the faster pace and greater physicality of the professional game.
The best first-year players show marked improvement each month. Then, after the All Star break, they put it all together and give a good glimpse by season’s end of the player they will one day become. Kuzma, however, has experienced anything but a conventional rookie season.
Perhaps he is the NBA’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide. Whatever the cause, we have been treated this season to two different versions of the same player.
The 2017 edition was arguably the best rookie in Lakers’ history not named Magic Johnson or Elgin Baylor. Kuzma burst on the scene in May with an outstanding performance at the NBA Combine, and he never let up.
He was MVP of the Summer League Championship Game when he scored 30 points on 11-for-16 shooting, and 6-of-10 from 3-point range. Kuzma could easily have been MVP of the entire league, an honor that went to the better-known Lonzo Ball.
Kuzma didn’t miss a beat. After reporting to training camp in September, he led the Lakers in scoring while fellow rookies Ball and Hart were injured and Ingram and Julius Randle were struggling.
By the end of preseason, it was clear that Kuzma was special. And nearly every basketball fan on the planet, who had never heard of him a few months before, began giving him endless praise.
For the rest of 2017, Kuzma was the best and most entertaining part of any Lakers game. Ball and Hart were struggling, while Ingram, Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, Jr. were inconsistent. In mid-November, the Washington Post proclaimed, “Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the future of the Lakers.”
In December 2017, ‘Kuzmania’ reached epic proportions. He became the first Lakers rookie to score 30 or more points in three consecutive games since Jerry West did it in 1962. Kuzma’s reputation exploded on Dec. 21, 2017, when he led the Lakers to a 122-116 victory over the Houston Rockets.
He played 39 minutes and scored 38 points, grabbed seven rebounds and had four assists. On Christmas Day, Kuzma scored 31 points in a nationally-televised loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, become the first rookie to score more than 30 points in a game on Christmas since LeBron James in 2003.
He was averaging 18.1 points per game by late December, the highest among all rookies. Kuzma had scored 20 or more points 15 times by the end of the year. For the final month in 2017, Kuzma averaged 19.5 points per game and 7.6 rebounds. He was entrenched as a starter, playing 35 minutes a night, and anointed the team’s starting power forward for the next 10 years.
But something happened when the calendar turned to 2018. Just as fast as Kuzma’s star had risen, it ducked behind clouds that have yet to part. It was as though the clock struck midnight and Cinderella was no longer the belle of the ball.
Other than a game against the Boston Celtics, when Kuzma scored 28 points, including 16 in the decisive fourth quarter, he has taken a back seat to a half-dozen other players on the roster.
Kuzma has not been bad, he has just looked like what he is — the 27th pick in the draft — not the top three rookie he resembled before. Whether it is coincidence or not, the decline began in early January when Kuzma was inexplicably relegated to the second unit.
Perhaps Lakers head coach Luke Walton had a premonition that it was Randle’s time. Randle was handed the starting power forward position, Kuzma was demoted, and the team never looked back.
Kuzma’s minutes dropped precipitously and so too did his production. He went from the featured performer little over two months ago to someone who was an afterthought. Until recently, since early January, a typical Kuzma outing was 22 minutes and 12 points.
He is shooting 44.7 percent from the field, which is still pretty good but a far cry from the 50 percent he shot for most of 2017. He’s at 36.2 percent from deep. Again, a solid rate by NBA standards but miles from the 42 percent he was making at one point earlier this season.
Aside from statistics, the eye test reveals that something is off. Kuzma has lost the attack mentality and fearlessness he had when the season started. You can see him thinking too much, as though Walton has gotten inside his head forcing him to suppress his tendency to be aggressive in favor of an overly rigid adherence to playing within the system.
Since replacing the injured Ingram, Kuzma is suddenly forced to play big minutes again. He was on the court for 38 minutes in a recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers and for 42 minutes in a win over the Orlando Magic.
Still, Kuzma has largely stood around watching his teammates dribble and shoot. In the loss to Portland, he took only 10 shots, fewer than four other teammates and only one more than Ball, who rarely shoots.
He had his best game in quite a while against the Magic, finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds, shooting better than 50 percent from the floor. It is worth pointing out that while his offense has taken a step back, his defense has improved and he is getting more blocks and steals than earlier in the season.
Still, in the past month, if anyone mentions Kuzma’s name, it is usually to ask, “What happened to Kyle Kuzma?” There are several theories which have been posited.
Did early success go to his head? Has he been playing through undisclosed injuries? Have opposing teams figured out how to guard him? Has he settled for too many 3-point shots? Does he need to be a starter to thrive? Is he tired from the grind of his first NBA season?
The worst-case scenario is that Kuzmania is the same as Linsanity, a reference to Jeremy Lin who was supernatural for part of his first year with the New York Knicks but never came close to repeating that level of play again.
No one should give up on Kuzma. He is an unusual player and personality who could turn things around overnight, and with Ingram out indefinitely, he is going to get that chance. But he’s got to find the aggressiveness and swagger that have abandoned him.
With little over a month of remaining in the season, what happened to Kuzma is a basketball mystery. Is the real Kyle Kuzma the 2017 version or is it the 2018 edition, or somewhere in between?
It would be helpful for the Lakers to figure out the answer to this question. It seemed very clear in December, but it is anything but clear at the moment.