Why Kyle Kuzma Is the Last Lakers Youngster Standing

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 17, 2019

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) and Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) battle for position under the basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — One by one, they've gone. Draft pick after draft pick, the Lakers have parted with the spoils of the last few years of sub-.500 basketball, from D'Angelo Russell to Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and Svi Mykhailiuk.

Now, the Lakers have agreed to send Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart (plus three first-rounders) to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis.

The lone man standing is Kyle Kuzma, the third-year forward who became a sticking point in negotiations. To be fair, the Lakers still have a couple of players drafted last season in Mo Wagner and Isaac Bonga, but Kuzma is the one young player L.A. fought hard to keep.

Days before news of the deal, Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times tweeted: "One player that the Lakers' trade discussions with the Pelicans for Anthony Davis could hinge on? Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers do not want to trade him, but the Pelicans want him as part of a package."

Why exactly is Kuzma still here?

For one, he represents a resume-builder for former president Earvin "Magic" Johnson and current general manager Rob Pelinka as the spoils of the Russell trade in 2017. Kuzma was taken with the No. 27 pick, acquired in the deal with the Brooklyn Nets, as the team began to amass cap space by dumping Timofey Mozgov's contract.

It's not often that a late first-rounder is named to the NBA's All-Rookie First Team (ahead of Ball, taken No. 2 the same year and named to the second team).

Never mind that the Lakers had the 28th pick in 2017 (trading down to get Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant), so Kuzma may have been there without the Nets swap. Regardless, he was a great pick, and so too was Hart at No. 30 in the same draft. The Lakers will miss Hart's toughness and ability to switch onto bigger players defensively in the post.

Anthony Davis
Anthony DavisTony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

But the Lakers prioritized Kuzma's 18.7 points per game last season versus Hart's 7.8. With LeBron James, Davis and potentially enough spending power to add one more star, Kuzma is ideal to round out the team's scoring arsenal.

If the Lakers can actually sign a player like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker or Jimmy Butler, they will be nearly impossible to stop offensively, with four primary scorers including Kuzma. The rest of the roster will probably be a combination of role players who can shoot and defend, perhaps with a few veterans chasing a ring.

Last summer, the Lakers could have kept Randle, but he was up for a contract, and the team was focused on acquiring All-Stars. L.A. wasn't ready to invest in a younger player like Randle, who went on to average a career-high 21.4 points per game with the Pelicans.

Similarly, Los Angeles is letting Ingram go. The 21-year-old forward is also coming off his best season, scoring 18.3 points per game, but he is eligible for an extension this summer and will be a restricted free agent next year. Again, that's money the Lakers aren't ready to invest, especially when the focus continued to shift from development to acquiring veteran stars.

Another factor that made Ingram more expendable than Kuzma: the $7.3 million in salary he's set to earn next season. The Lakers either needed to match Davis' salary in trade or go under the projected $109 million salary cap in an unbalanced deal, and Ingram was a vital piece to that puzzle.

So too was Ball, who will earn $8.7 million next season. The second-year guard proved to be one of the Lakers' best defenders, in addition to his ability to accelerate the team's offense. Ball, also 21, is far from a finished product. Still, his 9.9 points per game on 40.6 percent shooting from the field (32.9 percent from three) don't properly illustrate his value.

LeBron James
LeBron JamesJae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

But the Lakers had to give to receive, and both of Ingram and Ball's contracts were ready-made for the Davis swap, while Kuzma is "just" earning $2 million next season. That's close to what Wagner ($2.1 million), Hart ($1.9 million) and Bonga ($1.4 million) are set to make, and any of the three could have been substituted for salary purposes. Hart is the only proven commodity of the three, and the Lakers chose Kuzma's offensive upside over Hart's well-rounded game.

Style of play was also significant.

Hart would fit on almost any playoff contender, but Ingram is primarily a mid-range, isolation attacker who can get to the basket. That's valuable, and he was impressive this past season, but if Los Angeles is going to run its offense through James and Davis, Ingram's deliberate attack didn't fit. Ball's inconsistent outside shot and limited ability to score off the dribble could have led to issues in the postseason, similar to those Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers faced.

Ball might have fit, but Ingram was more problematic. Next to James and Davis, the Lakers need steady shooters and fast decision-makers who don't hold onto the ball. Kuzma, in theory, is that—although his 30.3 percent rate from three-point range would suggest otherwise. He must improve as an outside shooter to stick long term; otherwise, he could be the next young player to go.

Perhaps new head coach Frank Vogel can get more out of Kuzma than Luke Walton did. Maybe just playing with stars like James (who missed much of last season with a groin injury) and Davis will help him get back to above the 36.6 percent he shot from deep as a rookie.


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Defensively, Kuzma isn't as impactful as Ball, Ingram or Hart, but not for lack of effort. Last season, the team asked Kuzma to play power forward or center too often defensively. If the Lakers don't make the same mistake—already, Davis helps fix that issue—he may get more time as a wing.

He may be better suited to following Klay Thompson's path as a perimeter defender instead of banging inside with bigger, stronger players. Kuzma has the potential to be more of a two-way player, but he'll need to commit to that.

Ultimately, scoring prowess, a friendly contract (also at $3.6 million for 2020-21) and fit with James and Davis helped Kuzma stay a Laker, but another factor may simply be his intangible star power. He has an engaging personality, bonding well with his (former) teammates, James and, perhaps most importantly, the Lakers' top executives, including owner Jeanie Buss.

That's not to belittle Ingram, Ball and those who went before them. But Kuzma, who turns 24 in July, just seems to have a higher-level schmooze game. Maybe it's insignificant, but he's still here, and he's just about the only one.

The summer isn't over—in fact, it's barely begun—but the Lakers have already made the biggest splash of the offseason. The draft is Thursday. Free agents will start talking with teams June 30, and by July 6, the new contracts will start.

It's unclear if the Lakers will be in a financial position to get a third star, depending on the timing of the Davis trade. They'll have some spending power, but Kuzma may need to be the team's third scoring option after James and Davis. If he can up his consistency from deep, he'll be a major factor for the Lakers through the 2019-20 season.

       

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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