LOS ANGELES — After leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a 138-128 overtime road win Thursday over the Oklahoma City Thunder with 32 points, Kyle Kuzma poured in 20 in the first quarter Saturday in Houston against another playoff contender.
With LeBron James sidelined since Christmas Day with a groin injury, Kuzma has emerged as the Lakers' brightest young star. In the 10 full games he has played without James (excluding two-and-a-half he sat out with a bruised back), the second-year forward has averaged 24.9 points, leading Los Angeles to five wins.
It's an important time for the Lakers to evaluate their young talent as they plan for the future.
The goal is to pair James with another star. Perhaps the team can permanently groom Kuzma into that role, but the priority seems to be adding an elite veteran in free agency like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson. The top overall target is Anthony Davis, but to acquire the New Orleans forward within the next year, a trade would be required.
That's why the Lakers' young prospects need to show out: to help James in the current playoff run, to supplement a second star next season or to be sacrificed in a deal for a player like Davis.
Recently, Kuzma has emerged as the Lakers' best scorer, making him valuable for the first two options or potentially the primary piece the Pelicans might demand if they do deal Davis.
Kuzma's efforts have helped the Lakers (25-22) stay in the playoff hunt. Meanwhile, James has been cleared to return to practice and could be back by Thursday (along with Rajon Rondo) against the Minnesota Timberwolves. With Lonzo Ball spraining his ankle Saturday, the Lakers need their veteran stars back in the worst way.
In the meantime, Kuzma has shown he can help carry a team offensively.
"He's a legitimate scorer that fits the modern NBA perfectly," a former general manager told Bleacher Report. "Kuzma has the highest value of the [Lakers' young prospects]. He's the most proven."
Not that he's a finished product. On Saturday, the Rockets neutralized him with noted defender PJ Tucker, holding him to just eight points in the second half and overtime. Of course, Tucker is probably trying to stay glued to James instead of Kuzma if the Lakers were fielding a full roster. Both teams were shorthanded, with Chris Paul and Clint Capela unavailable for Houston.
"The consistency of his three-point shooting and defense must improve," the former executive continued. "Kuzma is not a good defender, but [he's] not as much of a liability as [Brandon] Ingram. Part of that may be positional. Ingram has to guard the elite wings at some level, although the Lakers try to hide him with [Josh] Hart and interesting cross-matches. Kuzma gets the 4s and 5s that aren't very good offensively. He also plays harder than Brandon."
Per NBA.com, in the 12 most common lineups the Lakers have run with Kuzma, the team has a positive net rating in 10. The least successful shouldn't be surprising: the lineup coach Luke Walton has started without James. That group (JaVale McGee, Ingram, Hart, Ball and Kuzma) has been outscored by 21.9 points per 100 possessions. Walton recently pulled the plug, starting Tyson Chandler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in place of McGee and Hart.
Ball's top lineups are identical to Kuzma's, as Walton relies heavily on the two to play together. Ingram has similar numbers with seven lineups out of eight with positive net ratings (with least 30 minutes played).
By and large, the Lakers have had a strong season—recent losses to the New York Knicks (10-34) and Cleveland Cavaliers (9-38) aside. Injuries have set the team back, but the Lakers still boast the seventh-best defensive net rating on the year at 106.3 points per 100 possessions.
"The Lakers were defending before James was hurt, after their rough start," the former executive said. "If you throw out the early part of the season, they are a very good defensive team."
On offense, Kuzma's ability to score quickly—without holding the ball for longer than two seconds—makes him a better fit with James than a player like Ingram, who prefers to score off the dribble.
"Kuzma's shot-making is peanut butter and jelly with LeBron's shot creation," a video analyst said while also noting that Ball would be an even better fit if he could become "a competent scorer." The analyst continued: "Lonzo is a better contributor in every other aspect. I'm a big believer in Lonzo, so I'd give him a slight edge long term."
Kuzma is averaging 6.1 rebounds per game along with 2.4 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.4 blocks. He's a scorer through and through, up to 19.3 points per game on the year while shooting 47 percent from the field. He's trended up from behind the arc, but his overall 31.3 percent clip from deep leaves a lot to be desired.
Meanwhile, Ball struggles to score at 9.9 points per game (on 40.6 percent shooting, 32.9 percent from three) but adds 5.4 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals and a similar 0.4 blocks. He's also a much better defender than Kuzma.
"Defensively, [Lonzo] is really good," the former GM said. "I like Lonzo. ... I love what he can do in transition and how he can defend. His shooting and scoring need to continue to improve."
Of course, Ball comes with baggage if the Lakers do look to move him—something they briefly considered recently, according to B/R's Ken Berger.
"I'd also be a little cautious with LaVar [Ball]," the former executive continued, referring to the point guard's outspoken father. "LeBron has overshadowed this, but I would be seriously concerned about taking that on, even though I like the player."
Ingram dominated overtime Saturday against the Rockets, albeit in a losing effort. He missed eight of nine shots against the Thunder but dished a career-high 11 assists in the win. In 13 games without James, Ingram is averaging 17.8 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 45.8 percent from the field. He doesn't take many three-pointers, which is probably a good thing given he's hitting 27.3 percent of them over that stretch.
But long term, to fit with James, Ingram is going to need to develop his outside shot. Kuzma is 23 and spent three years at Utah. Ingram, 21, spent just one year at Duke and has a lot more developing to do.
Multiple scouts and executives around the league are intrigued by what Ingram may or may not be in the NBA. He's polarizing, but the former GM is not a fan.
"I'm not an Ingram guy. I don't like the inefficiency and style of play," he said. "I respect the scoring ability, but he doesn't separate with a live ball and hasn't shown to be a consistent three-point shooter. We know how much that hurts [in today's game]. He's a good finisher and gets to the line. Defensively he's brutal, and with his style of play and lack of shooting, I'm probably lowest on him."
The video analyst accepted some of the defensive criticism, but not to the same degree.
"I don't agree that he's a disaster overall. He's superb on the ball, and he's better off of it [than he was last season], even if he's not [good] yet. He's not getting back-cut nearly as often this year, but no, [Ingram] doesn't do nearly enough with his length."
Ingram is more of a long-term play, which could be enticing to a team that has time to be patient. The Lakers, once they signed James, are on a different track. He may prove to be the best all-around player out of the team's young prospects, but he may also be the piece the Lakers need to sacrifice in an eventual trade for a second star.
Ball needs to learn how to score more consistently. A point guard who doesn't need the ball can be valuable alongside James, provided he can catch and shoot. Ball's shaky jumper could make him expendable.
Because Kuzma has a clearly defined skill in scoring, in a style that fits well with James, he's the one young player the team should make every effort to keep. Of course, he's also becoming the top target for teams.
In chasing Davis, the Lakers may need a push from his agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, who also represents James.
"I'd say if the [Philadelphia 76ers offer Ben] Simmons, or with the [Boston] Celtics' package of picks and young players, the Lakers would probably be third," the former executive said. "One would think that [Pelicans general manager] Dell [Demps] would want a deal done around the draft [with Boston's picks]."
But the key to a Boston package might be second-year forward Jayson Tatum.
"After Simmons, I love Tatum. He'd have to be the deal-maker in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes," he continued. "If he's in the package, AD to the Celtics. To each his own in the NBA, and certainly others would value differently, but on average, based upon body of work, I think the 30 teams would value Philadelphia/Boston talent over the Lakers."
If the Celtics won't include Tatum in an offer, or if the Sixers hold on to Simmons, the balance shifts considerably.
"Boston [wants] to keep Tatum. If Rich Paul is trying to control [Davis' fate] until 2020 [when he's an unrestricted free agent], then likely Tatum isn't made available by Boston and the Lakers probably get it done," the former GM concluded. "That Paul also represents Ben Simmons has to help the Lakers too."
If Kuzma is third after Simmons and Tatum, but neither is made available by their respective teams, the Lakers may have the best piece to offer.
Provided Davis informs New Orleans that he intends to leave, Demps can't afford to lose his All-Star as a free agent in 2020 without a significant return. If Paul scares off other suitors with promises that he'll pair up his two top clients together in Los Angeles, he might be able to leverage the Pelicans into taking Ingram (and possibly Ball) instead of Kuzma.
The NBA trade deadline is only a few weeks away, but New Orleans isn't likely to decide on Davis until after the season. That will give the Lakers more time to develop their young core, be it to star alongside James or to build trade value for that elusive second star.