In regards to just individual performances, there haven’t been many Lakers on the team that have improved this season on their play from last season. LeBron James is still, of course, LeBron James, but other than him most of the returning Lakers have regressed after the short turnaround between the 2020 NBA Finals and the 2020-21 regular season (this doesn’t include offseason acquisition Dennis Schröder). Kyle Kuzma, however, has continued his steady improvement from the initial awkwardness of going from arguably the best scorer on the team during his 2017-18 rookie season to playing alongside the greatest in the game in his 2018-19 season. Throw in Anthony Davis last season (who takes up plenty of minutes at Kuzma’s main position) and that builds up plenty of major adjustments that Kuzma has had to make to continue to be a rotation player for this team.
He’s definitely succeeded in those adjustments, while also quietly developing a very valuable skill in life and on the hardwood. That skill is communication, specifically non-verbal communication. Below you can see his whole quote regarding an instance of non-verbal communication used in the Lakers’ win against the Pacers on Friday. Oh, and yes, the quote is NSFW (courtesy of the L.A. Times’ Dan Woike and Lakers Nation’s Ryan Ward).
Yeah, I mean. We were looking at each other the entire possession. You know, I was pretty much eye-f***ing him to pass me the ball. And he found me, and I made the shot.
I had to clip this Kyle Kuzma (@kylekuzma) quote because it is absolutely PRICELESS!! (Question by @mcten and funny reaction by @DanWoikeSports) – I couldn't keep it together. Too funny! pic.twitter.com/w0xoFHtDof
— Ryan Ward (@RyanWardLA) March 13, 2021
As @LakeShowScoop on Twitter notes, this may be a skill that he’s been working on the past year. Check out this promotional video shot where Kuzma talks about a non-basketball skill that he wants to master (it’s also funny to hear that Kuzma thinks communication has nothing to do with basketball).
— LakeShowScoop (@LakeShowScoop) March 13, 2021
Of course, I’m obviously playing around. But still, maybe “communication” is something that Kuzma has improved while working with what appears to be some elite communicators in Frank Vogel and LeBron James. If true, that’s not the only area where Kuzma has improved during this season and last season.
Am I about to transition from a comment about “eye-f***ing” into actual basketball analysis? You bet.
Kyle Kuzma has taken his weakness of defense in his first couple of seasons and has turned it into one of his strengths. He’s argubaly the Lakers’ best wing defender behind LeBron and it shows in the analytics, as he’s currently ranked 16th in all NBA “small-forwards” in terms of ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus. He’s also part of probably the team’s best defensive lineup in terms of Defensive Rating (90.0 in 56 total minutes played together) alongside LeBron James, Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, and Talen Horton-Tucker.
He’s also added a very niche strength within the NBA: rebounding. He’s always making a point of crashing the boards on every offensive possession as he has become a ballhawk for long threes that may bounce out. The aggressive rebounding has resulted in three straight double-doubles for Kuzma, having nine total on the year. He only had two during last year’s regular sseason. Crashing the boards has been the difference with 2.1 offensive rebounds per game this season compared to only 0.9 per game last season.
With names like LeBron, Davis, Harrell, Schröder on the team, any 20+ point game for Kuzma is just icing on the cake at this point. It’s the little things — rebounding, defense, and overall hustle — that are going to be the ways that Kyle Kuzma helps this team get to the promised land of the 2021 NBA Finals.
But after a normal career’s amount of scrutiny condensed down to 3.5 seasons, I’m just happy to see Kuzma can still have a little fun. He’s shown it in the recent past (calling out Jesus Christ after a game-winning shot in the bubble) and has shown it again with his admission of sensual eye contact between himself and LeBron.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.