With the 27th pick in the NBA draft, the Lakers selected Kyle Kuzma, PF out of Utah. The analysis at the time said the Utes big man had an intriguing mix of skill and smooth athleticism all in the body of a 6’10 dude. After the draft, in what has become typical Rob Pelinka fashion, the GM said that they were “doing backflips” that Kuzma was still there when the team made their selection. Meanwhile, fans were…well, I don’t know what, exactly.
Kuzma wasn’t exactly a well known college player to me. Maybe I’m not the best barometer of these things (I don’t watch much college ball), but I was fairly familiar with Josh Hart (who the Lakers took at pick #30) and was aware of several other prospects who were supposed to be selected in the range where Kuzma ended up going (fwiw, Kuzma was ranked #43 by Draft Express before the draft). Whenever I don’t know anything about something, I dive in and see what I can learn. What I saw from Kuzma was a player with some skill (I liked his passing), some good athletic ability (I liked the way he changed ends), a guy who showed some promise as a shooter, and someone who would compete defensively.
In other words, Kuzma checked a lot of boxes. I thought he might be someone who could develop over time, but someone who would have trouble cracking the rotation because of the dept the team already had a PF. Julius Randle and Larry Nance are established rotation players. Luol Deng will likely need minutes at PF if he’s going to get minutes at all. There’s even the hope that Ingram can moonlight some at PF in certain lineups. So, yeah. Kuzma was a nice pick, but “backflips” he was still on the board? For a guy who might not play?
Kuzma has been a revelation in Las Vegas, however. A rangy, skilled, PF who is handling the ball, making good passes, showing a nice shooting stroke and easiness as a long range bomber, and an assertiveness to get buckets that I did not know was there. Yes, it’s only summer league and the numbers he’s putting up must be put into that context with the appropriate caveats attached. But even if somethings do not translate to the regular season (I don’t expect him to make 45% of his 3’s as a rookie), there’s a lot of positives to take away from what he’s doing.
First, as noted, Kuzma’s just a wonderfully skilled player for his size. He has a nice handle, very good passing acumen, and shoots an easy looking shot with range beyond the NBA three point line. He also offers a switch-ability defensively which has, in Vegas at least, proven to be better than anticipated. He shows good feet when closing out then sliding with wings to avoid giving up the types of straight line drives which compromise a defense.
Possessing these specific tools in his bag offer a nice alternative to the other PF’s on the roster. While Randle has the handle and passing, his comfort as a shooter is no where near where Kuzma’s is now. Nance may be the better defender (especially when adding in his back line ability) and offer more athletic finishing around the rim, but he’s not the perimeter player Kuzma is in terms of handle nor shooting. As for Deng, he has the experience and understanding of team concepts on both ends, but Kuzma’s physical ability at this age can allow him to make up for that lack of experience.
What does this mean for the regular season? It’s hard to really know at such an early stage. As high as I am on Kuzma from these summer games, what happens in July doesn’t always materialize come November. Summer is a really small sample and the competition is lower. The types of athletes Kuzma sees now aren’t the ones he’ll see when facing rotation level NBA guys. They will get out to contest his shot better, slide with him on his drives, and offer more craft when defending him in space. Real NBA games are a step up in speed, smarts, and overall ability. Players who have not experienced it need time to adjust.
Further, it’s one thing to be slotted as a go-to guy on a summer league roster. It’s quite another to be a role player behind other, more established, veterans during the regular season. One of Kuzma’s strengths in Vegas has been his relentless attacking and his lack of hesitation as a shooter and shot creator. Is that how Walton would want him to play when slotted next to Randle or Lopez in the front court? In lineups next to Clarkson, Ingram, and KCP? Maybe it will be. But, if it’s not, some adjustments will be in order. Good thing is he has the varied skill and floor game to play that style, but it’s still a different one that what we’ve seen in Vegas.
All that said, I believe at some point this year (and maybe sooner than later), Kuzma will show he’s a reasonable option to play actual NBA minutes. And, when that happens, I’m interested in seeing how Luke Walton handles it.
Kuzma looks to be the type of player perfectly suited to play the style the Lakers will adopt under Walton and with the addition of Lonzo Ball to guide them. Fast paced, ball moving, shooting, switching defensively…this is Kuzma’s profile. This also aligns well with what Randle and Nance offer. Could Kuzma end up getting some real PF minutes while Nance and Randle moonlight more and more a C? If that does happen, will Zubac be the one who suffers from the minutes crunch?
In a way, these would be nice problems to have. Every coach wants more options in the rotation, not less. Still, though, when managing a young team full of guys who all want to play and show what they have as NBA talents, managing the locker room and getting the most out of every player becomes more difficult. That’s lessened with high character players — especially when playing in a system where teamwork and togetherness are structural pillars.
That’s a ways away, though. For now, Kuzma is just a great summer league story who looks like he could be one of the steals of the draft. And, for me, that’s enough. We’ll see how much of this carries over to the regular season. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hopeful and excited for the prospect of it all, though.