The Los Angeles Lakers entered July 1st hoping to add a third star – namely, Kawhi Leonard – to a team that, at the time, featured only LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma and a couple of depth pieces.
Ultimately, they fell short of their goal. Leonard opted to join their crosstown rivals, taking Paul George with him in a blockbuster trade. In one fell swoop, the league evolved from the superteam era to the dynamic duo age with several teams fancying themselves as contenders behind two stars and depth around them.
So, the Lakers went to plan B. They signed the best remaining free agent in Danny Green, fresh off an NBA championship. They signed a former All-Star center in DeMarcus Cousins who is hoping to prove he is worthy of another big contract after tearing his Achilles. They brought back role players from last year and added a few more from around the league.
Through all of those transactions, one name flew under the radar.
Kyle Kuzma outlasted the rest of the Lakers’ young core as they were shipped off to New Orleans for Davis. There were convenient reasons for this, of course. At a lower salary, Kuzma did not make sense for the infrastructure of a trade that needed to leave the Lakers with enough space to pursue Leonard.
But the Lakers made sure to keep Kuzma all the same, placing their faith in the third-year pro to become a crucial part of what could be a championship-winning team.
Make no mistake: Kuzma is crucial to the success of the Lakers even if it appears unlikely that he will be a regular starter. The Utah product will be 24 years old when the new season starts, older than Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram and, therefore, more likely to contribute to a winning team right now than either of the former number two overall picks, even if they seem to have a higher ceiling.
Of course, that’s a high bar to set for Kuzma and it will be up to him to reach it. The forward came into the league scorching hot, surprising everyone with his production as a rookie. His sophomore year was a more up-and-down effort, with marked improvements – albeit inconsistent ones – in his playmaking and defense but a disappointing year in his shooting from behind the arc.
For the Lakers to reach their ceiling this season and beyond, they are going to need much more consistency from Kuzma. And while his defense will be the biggest question mark, it’s his offensive game that can unlock the Lakers’ full potential.
Kuzma managed to reach roughly league-average efficiency in his overall game (54.6% true shooting percentage) last year despite the poor outside shooting. That’s a promising outlook for the young forward given that he will have plenty of opportunities to attack closeouts after a kick out from James or Davis. In fact, outside of his isolation and handoff possessions, Kuzma graded out as at least average efficiency in every play type, according to Synergy.
His most common play types (transition, spot-up, pick-and-roll ball handler, off-screen, and cuts) will be the most common play types again this year, lending credence to the theory that he can be a great fit on a team with multiple stars. Davis, in particular, has had previous success with a player similar to Kuzma (at least offensively).
When Cousins tore his Achilles in 2018 as the Pelicans aimed for a playoff berth, they had to lean on Nikola Mirotic (a trade deadline acquisition) to be Davis’ running mate in the frontcourt. They had tremendous success together. In fact, in 577 regular season minutes in which the two played together, the Pelicans outscored their competition by 10.2 points per 100 possessions through an offensive rating of 111.0, per NBA.com.
Mirotic’s play types in those 30 games with the Pelicans were similar to Kuzma’s last year, but with higher efficiency almost across the board.
It’s clear that Kuzma will have to get better at the parts of his game that will come off of Davis and James in order to be the third option on the Lakers. He already has promise as someone that the offense can go through when the stars are off the court but maximizing his production and efficiency when he plays off the ball should be the ultimate goal.
Fortunately, Kuzma has shown that he can play off of stars like LeBron even if the efficiency is not quite there. The Lakers outscored opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions when both were on the court last year and Kuzma’s true shooting percentage went up by 3.7 percentage points with his star teammate on the court, per NBA.com.
Kuzma has been getting rave reviews this offseason from Frank Vogel who has said that he is impressed by his work ethic and has called him coachable on both ends of the floor. Davis has said that he’s looking forward to playing with him. He’s also been reworking his shot with shooting coach Chris Matthews (who has also worked with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), to hopefully get back to his rookie-year numbers.
One thing about @kylekuzma he’s never satisfied. Early mornings and late nights are starting to pay off. Changing 8 major key components to his jumper. Balance, higher release etc. Re-versing old muscle memory isn’t easy but with his dedication we will get there. #NBA #Lakers pic.twitter.com/lQMYaxsDq5
— Lethal Shooter (@LethalShooter__) July 15, 2019
The Lakers have put a lot of faith in Kyle Kuzma to potentially become their third star after they struck out on their top free agency target. That faith is not unfounded as he has shown during his short career that he has the potential to not only play off of better players but to also be a primary initiator, as well.
But in order to be a championship level team, something that the team itself has said is the only way they can measure success this year, they will need high-level production with high-level efficiency out of their 2017 first-round draft pick.
Unlocking that potential will be a major key to the Lakers’ season and their quest to put a 17th banner in the Staples Center rafters. It will also be integral to life after LeBron when Davis and Kuzma could become a formidable frontcourt duo to keep the team afloat for years to come.