Is Kyle Kuzma Ready to Be the Los Angeles Lakers' 3rd Star?

Nekias DuncanFeatured Columnist IJuly 20, 2019

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - MARCH 19:  Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on in the first quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at the Fiserv Forum on March 19, 2019 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

This is the summer of bets for the Los Angeles Lakers. They pushed their chips to the center of the table to maximize the twilight of LeBron James' career. The timing makes enough sense within that context; the Golden State Warriors being weakened with the departure of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson's ACL injury means the NBA is as wide-open as it's been in years.

The Lakers made their initial gamble by flipping Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and collection of future picks that would make Danny Ainge sweat to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis. Their pursuit of a third star failed, with Kawhi Leonard choosing the other team in Los Angeles. However, the Lakers rebounded with depth signings, headlined by DeMarcus Cousins and Danny Green.

They're banking on the LeBron-Davis pairing to run roughshod over the two-star NBA. A bounce-back campaign from the suddenly skinny Cousins could take the Lakers to another level.

What's flying a bit under the radar is how much pressure will be on Kyle Kuzma this season.

Kuzma is the lone youngster left from the Lakers' core four, and that was intentional. There were financial reasons at play; Kuzma's salary (under $2 million this season) was low enough to allow the Lakers to pursue a max-level free agent. Beyond that, Kuzma has already established himself as a walking mismatch offensively.

Considering he's entering his third season, a common year for talented young players to make a leap, there's room for optimism. But Kuzma's potential only matters so much for a team that's ready to win now.

While Kuzma is talented, questions surrounding his fit have to be answered this season.

   

Are we sure Kuzma can shoot?

We know Kuzma can score. He burst onto the scene in 2017-18 as one of the most prolific rookie scorers in recent memory. His 16.1 points per game ranked second behind Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (20.5), and he did so with slightly better efficiency (54.9 true shooting percentage vs. 54.1). Kuzma averaged 18.7 points last season, second on the Lakers behind the King himself (27.4).

At 6'9", Kuzma combines a somewhat bulky frame with wing-like ball skills. While not an explosive athlete, he generally gets to his spots against like-sized or bigger players. 

You can see the amount of shake and craft Kuzma possesses in the clip above. Lumbering Charlotte Hornets big man Frank Kaminsky picks up Kuzma in semi-transition. Kuzma immediately goes to work, setting up Kaminsky with a hang dribble to his right. Kaminsky slides in anticipation of the screen, but Kuzma crosses over to his left and punctures the defense. Willy Hernangomez rotates over, but Kuzma evades him with a smooth Eurostep.

Against smaller defenders, Kuzma is nothing short of a bully.

Here, the 6'5" Wayne Ellington gets the Kuzma assignment. All it takes is a quick double-crossover to get Ellington leaning. Kuzma then dips his shoulder and gets a free run to the rim.

The wild card for Kuzma is his perimeter shooting. He shot 36.6 percent from three on 5.6 attempts during his rookie season. Nearly eighty percent (79.7) of those looks came from above the break; that should've been a positive indicator considering his solid efficiency from the corners (37.9 percent). Via Synergy, Kuzma drilled 40 percent of his unguarded catch-and-shoot looks in the half-court, generating a preposterous 1.17 points per possession in those situations.

Kuzma's shooting fell off a cliff last year. His overall volume went up (6.0 attempts per game), as did the share of his shots from the corners (from 20 percent to 21.6 percent). Kuzma's three-point percentage plummeted to 30.3 percent; he even shot worse from the corners (32.9 percent). 

The oddest thing: He shot roughly the same on guarded (31.9 percent) and unguarded (32.1 percent) catch-and-shoot opportunities in the half-court.

Kuzma hasn't proved to be a pull-up threat. He's converted 61 of his 199 shots off the dribble (30.7 percent) dating back to his last season in college. That's mostly fine since he compensates as a driver, but he must become more consistent as a catch-and-shoot threat. To his credit, he's been putting in some serious work this summer:

The Lakers offense will likely be centered around the LeBron-Davis spread pick-and-roll. Spacing the floor is vital to maximizing the stress placed on opposing defenses. Kuzma has to make shots off the catch to fit in as a starter.

       

Who will Kuzma guard?

Let's have a quick "glass" test with Kuzma's defense.

If you take the glass-half-full approach, you'll applaud Kuzma's effort on the play, something he struggled with during his rookie season. He has an uncomfortable assignment chasing Nets sharpshooter Joe Harris over screens, but he doesn't give up on the play and ends up getting an impressive block.

If you fall on the other end of the equation, you may shake your head. 

Kuzma struggles to stay attached to Harris, who doesn't appear to be running full speed here. He gets hung up on the Jarrett Allen screen and takes a slightly wider path to get back into the play than he has to. That's 100 percent nitpicking, but those margins are the difference between stifling a half-court set and giving up an open look.

Kuzma improved as a defender last season. The effort was much better, particularly when it came to "tagging" rollers in pick-and-roll. He still doesn't diagnose off-ball actions as quickly as you'd like, but the improved engagement level is a positive.

In general, Kuzma looked better defending bigs than he did chasing guys around the perimeter. Via Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus, Kuzma spent roughly 48 percent of his defensive possessions guarding power forwards or centers. It's hard to see that trend continuing this season, and that could be an issue.

For all the talk of LeBron starting at point guard—and I mean, come on, he's always operated as his team's point guard—he most certainly won't be defending point guards. LeBron will likely bang with opposing 4s or "guard" non-shooters so he can play free safety. Assuming Danny Green starts in the backcourt, he'll be defending point guards. That leaves Davis, Kuzma and Mystery Player X to defend 2s, 3s and 5s. 

Kuzma doesn't possess the lateral quickness necessary to hang with smaller wings on a consistent basis. Despite improved effort, he struggles to navigate a bevy of screens. Simplifying things—letting him bang with bulkier players—may be the best way to utilize him at this time. 

   

What if it doesn't work?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 05: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts from the bench during the first half of the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on April 05, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User express
Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images

There's no question that Kuzma is talented. If he's in a position where he can play the 4 full-time, there's a path to his becoming a very good player. With the way the Lakers have constructed their roster, it's hard to see him being able to play his natural spot without injuries happening ahead of him.

Barring injury, you can slot in LeBron, Davis and Green as crunch-time options. From there, it's going to be largely matchup dependent. But even within that context, serious questions have to be answered.

If Kuzma doesn't re-establish himself as a plus shooter, what's the argument for playing him over Cousins in the frontcourt of a closing lineup?

If he can't chase shooters around or contain guys off the dribble, what makes him a better closing option than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Avery Bradley?

And if Kuzma doesn't showcase the ability to do either of those things early, what stops the Lakers from shopping him in a package for a win-now piece?

I'm not suggesting the Lakers should move Kuzma in a deal for a Banana Boat member currently awaiting his fate in Oklahoma City. That would be reckless for multiple reasons. I am saying that Kuzma shouldn't be untouchable if it becomes clear he doesn't fit the win-now window.

That's not completely fair to Kuzma, but it's hard to see where he fits as a serious contributor if he can't hang on the perimeter. The clock is ticking on LeBron's career, and that brings a certain sense of urgency to the table. 

This could well be a make-or-break season for Kuzma's future in Los Angeles.

     

Stats via Basketball Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

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