Kyle Kuzma is a burgeoning star. He may only be a rookie, but a combination of his game + his draft position + the city he plays in + the franchise he plays for = a dramatic rise in exposure and relevance in the league. If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is look around.
From stepping out of the shadow of being the Lakers “other rookie” to a Q&A in Rolling Stone, to a feature in SLAM Magazine, to being put on a best dressed list at the GQ All-Star Weekend party, Kuzma is everywhere and getting the type of recognition in his first year typically reserved for top picks, not players selected 27th overall.
His star only rises off the court, however, because of the work he does on it. He ranks 3rd in the NBA is rookie scoring and is 2nd on the Lakers in the same metric. Shuffling between starter and reserve, Kuzma’s flashed an advanced ability to get buckets. A game built on shooting, footwork, and smarts allows him to move comfortably from the perimeter to the paint and his arsenal of crafty finishes translates to baskets at every level of the floor.
Be it a 3-pointer over a late closeout, a drive by a defender arriving too early, a post up over a smaller defender, a running hook over his man when working in isolation, or a power finish in the open court, Kuzma can do it all and has done it often this year. It sin’t supposed to be this way for a rookie. He got thrown into the deep-end of the pool and started doing the backstroke.
All of this is great, ,but it is also where things get a bit tricky.
Because while Kuzma really can play and is proving to have more potential than someone taken in his draft slot, his level of play has been choppier than the narrative would imply. After peaking with averages of 19.5 points and 7.6 rebounds on 44% shooting from the field and 40% from behind the arc in December, Kuzma’s stats have steadily declined since the turn of the new year:
- January: 12.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 41.3% FG, 32.1% 3-point FG
- February: 11.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 39.1% FG, 28.2% 3-point FG
Be it the “rookie wall” — the Lakers have played 57 games to this point in the year, nearly double the 29 games Kuzma played his junior year at Utah, defenses starting to key on him as a primary scorer, a natural regression from his hot first few months, or a combination of all the above — Kuzma is playing worse than what he was when he outperformed expectations and jumped into the national dialogue. This isn’t a dig at him, it’s just stating what’s happened.
And now this decline in play just happens to coincide with the potential for a jump in minutes and an expansion of his role, too.
With the trade of Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have opened up minutes in the front court and offensive opportunities on the 2nd unit. The player most likely to be the beneficiary of both is Kuzma. The question is whether Kuzma’s “ready” to take on the bigger load in both court time and touches/shots created by the departure of Nance and Clarkson. His recent level of play can cause doubts even if his full body of work this season should give him the benefit of the doubt.
In a weird way, this might be the first time this year where the perception of Kuzma’s production shifts from happy/surprised at how good he is to should we be expecting more from him? For a player who has embraced being an underdog and used the chip on his shoulder to prove doubters wrong — not just as a rookie, but really, his entire life — I wonder if this impacts his mindset at all or if it’s just more motivation to exceed expectations.
Time will tell how he responds, but from talking to those around him and seeing how he’s handled himself this season, I think he’ll approach this with the right mindset and that the results will follow suit.