Kyle Kuzma’s season has been anything but consistent. The third-year pro has battled injuries and struggled at times but has also shown flashes of his promise in some big performances.
What hasn’t been inconsistent for Kuzma has been the continued improvement defensively. The forward won’t lock anyone down or be tasked with guarding opponents’ best players but after improving between his rookie and sophomore years, he’s taken another short leap this year.
On Saturday, Kuzma’s defense was one of the main storylines of a statement win on the road. After Russell Westbrook tore the Lakers’ defense open in the first half by repeatedly bullying the Lakers’ guards, Rajon Rondo (who sat out with a fractured finger) asked Kuzma if he could guard the former MVP.
As it turns out, he could.
Kuzma drew the assignment for most of the third quarter as the Lakers roared out to an impressive start to the second half, erasing a six-point halftime deficit to take a nine-point lead into the final period.
The Lakers held the high octane Rockets offense to just 17 points in the third quarter. While there were several players who could be credited for the defensive lockdown (particularly JaVale McGee and his three rejections), it was Kuzma accepting that challenge and excelling in it that drew the praise of his teammates and coaches postgame (h/t Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll):
“I think offensively he was very good, but defensively in that third quarter he took the challenge on Russ,” Lakers star LeBron James said on ABC after the game. “Big step for the young fella.”
Danny Green, via ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
“I think he understands what the bigger picture is,” Green said. “It’s not about scoring, not about getting numbers, it’s not about ‘getting mine’ on the offensive side of the floor. It starts with the defensive end of the floor.
“Obviously, he can still do it on the offensively, but defensively, he knows you can’t have any lapses. You can’t have any letdowns. … We don’t want to let our teammates down, basically. We don’t need anybody that’s a mismatch. We don’t need anybody that’s a liability. The biggest thing, for him, is not just not being a liability, but also letting people know and taking his game to the next level by showing that he can be a defensive presence for us.”
Kuzma also spoke about his defensive growth throughout his career and why it matters for him to slowly shed away the narrative that he can’t contribute on that end.
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) January 19, 2020
Westbrook scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field with just one turnover in the first half. He repeatedly burned the Lakers with his speed as they threw soft double-teams at James Harden and made them pay for it at the rim.
The third quarter was a different story for the point guard. In the period, Westbrook made just two of his six field goal attempts for four points and recorded just one assist to two turnovers.
The Lakers were better defensively as a team, of course, but much of Westbrook’s relative struggles could be credited to Kuzma. According to the NBA’s matchup data (it should be noted these can be noisy and not the most accurate measure of defense), Kuzma was Westbrook’s primary defender for roughly 14 possessions during which he scored only two points (on 1/4 shooting) and had three assists and three turnovers.
Here are some highlights of Kuzma and the Lakers' second-half defensive gameplan against Westbrook pic.twitter.com/QjaaasSv8C
— Lakers Outsiders (@LakersOutsiders) January 19, 2020
It’s a theme of the Lakers season that Kuzma has actually done at least an adequate job when matched up against All-Star level guards and wings and has been a better defender on the perimeter than he has in the interior. On a team with limited depth to defend big wings, that skillset has become invaluable to Frank Vogel.
Kuzma has taken a lot of flack from fans and the media and some of it has been deserved. But while his offense has taken time to come together and has been inconsistent, his defensive improvements should not go unnoticed. They certainly aren’t by his team.