What you find out at NBA summer league is almost always dependent on what it is you’re looking for. It is the nature of this environment where, coming off the heels of the draft, most people have preconceived notions about who or what a prospect is and then go about confirming those when seeing them on the Thomas and Mack hardwood.
Go back a couple of years. You think D’Angelo Russell is going to be a bust? Well, that’s confirmed via a poor shooting night and the lack of drives and finishes at the rim. You think Jahlil Okafor is going to be a stud big man? Well, that’s confirmed with him beasting dudes in the post and showing some deft face up moves from 18 feet an in. Even if those things aren’t really true in the aggregate, if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s pretty easy to get there through some surface observations.
Thing is, finding what you’re looking for isn’t the point of summer league. In fact, it’s hard to really decipher what the point is at all.
As I wrote in my preview for the Lakers excursion to Vegas, summer league is weird. It’s guys who have never played together before, with differing goals, all thrown together with limited practice time and asked to win games. You think Lonzo Ball and Vander Blue are there for the same reasons? What about Brandon Ingram and Thomas Bryant? Or Travis Wear and Josh Hart? Nah, man. These guys all play for the Lakers, but what they’re really playing for can vary from a training camp invite to a spot in the rotation to a guaranteed contract with the Lakers (or another team) to getting that W when the buzzer sounds.
I’ve gotten off track some, but I think this is important. I fully believe that, if anything, summer league is about looking for hints that a guy can actually play at the NBA level. I think we all have our definition of this, but mine is pretty straight forward. All of these guys have talent to be in the league and all of them have weaknesses which could keep them from thriving. Stressing too much on either end of the spectrum is doing everyone (including us as people providing thoughts and analysis) a disservice.
For me, then, I’m just looking at some simple decision making stuff, how skill level and ability translate into game action, and whether there is, at any point, a time where a guy just looks the part of an actual NBA rotation player. Like Larry Flynt once said about a different topic, “you know it when you see it” and after years of watching this league, I think that applies to basketball too.
This brings me to Kyle Kuzma, who exploded for 31 points in Saturday’s loss to the Celtics. Kuzma had his entire offensive repertoire going and it resulted in quite the highlight reel.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) July 9, 2017
I had no clue what to expect from Kuzma after he was drafted. I read the scouting reports, watched some tape, and saw a player who fit into the mold of a versatile forward on both ends of the floor. Rob Pelinka later confirmed this is exactly what they were looking for and what led to their excitement when he was still on the board at #27. They think he can be a two way player, with feel, who has enough versatility and switch-ability to play in most any lineup.
I’m not going to pretend a big scoring outburst in a summer league game confirms any of that, but I will say, I think Kuzma can play. He shoots an “easy” ball, is showing a comfort level shooting beyond the NBA arc, is a smooth and fluid athlete, and is impressing me when he locks in defensively — especially on the wing. Can he be a bit soft protecting the basket? Yes. Did he get a bit shot happy vs. the C’s? You bet. But, again, every player has flaws and some things are just a part of summer league being weird. What I’m looking for are hints this dude has it — or at least my definition of it.
And through two games, he’s showing he does. His skill set just fits into today’s NBA well. How much that will matter come regular season time when he’s battling for minutes with Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr for PF minutes, I’ve no clue. But, I do think he’ll be able to play actual NBA minutes next year. Even after only two games, I’ve seen enough to make me believe it. Which, for a player who was taken where he was in the draft, is saying something.