“Tweener” used to be an NBA pejorative, a descriptor used to describe players whose games slotted between two positions; players who could only help you so much because they did not fit naturally within more stringent positional norms. In today’s NBA, however, nearly everyone strives to be a tweener of some sort.
Position-less basketball has taken hold of the league and the more versatile you are the better. Point guards with okay ball skills but 3-point shooting ability and size to defend a small forward? Give me one of those. A PF with only okay height, but great length and enough strength to guard centers and a jumper good enough to camp in the weakside corner on offense? Yes, please. This is the league today and, honestly, I think we’re all better off for it as fans of the game.
Kyle Kuzma is a tweener. He’s a classic combo forward who has the height to play PF, the ball skills and scoring punch to play some SF, and does just enough on defense and the backboards to hold his own no matter where a coach deploys him. This makes him valuable to any team and is a key reason1along with his small salary that he’s the young Laker who was not included in a deal for Anthony Davis.
On a team whose two best players happen to start at SF and PF, however, Kuzma can be viewed by some as an odd man out. Positional overlap and depth can be great for the long grind of the regular season, but when it comes to the playoffs these things hold less value. Unless, of course, that player is a tweener who can lean on the parts of his game that can be utilized more while not encroaching on the skills of those better players who are slotted in front of you.
Kuzma, then, finds himself in an interesting position with these Lakers but one that is not the dead end his stated position of PF would have you believe. You see, Kuzma can do wing things on a team that desperately needs more players who can bring more than one or two key perimeter skills to the table. An examination of the Lakers roster lays this bare.
Name a player on the Lakers roster not named LeBron James or Anthony Davis who can do all of these things: create his own shot, come off a screen to hit a jumper, initiate a fast break off a rebound or an outlet pass to either score or create a shot for a teammate, fill a lane on the break and streak for a layup/dunk or to the arc for a spot up 3, and handle the ball in a pick and roll to either create a shot for himself from the 3-point line all the way to the rim or hit a teammate for an easy basket.
I’ll give you a hint: the list is short. There’s actually only one player on it. His name is Kyle Kuzma. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Can Kuzma do these things? Yes. Yes he can.
Let’s start with the most wing thing there is: running a pick and roll. While this isn’t Kuzma’s biggest strength, he definitely has the tool in his bag. For example, here’s Kuzma camped in the corner with the ball, getting a screen from JaVale, coming off the pick hard to the middle, drawing help, then dishing to his rolling big for a finish at the rim.
Now, here’s Kuzma back dribbling from an isolation chance to run another P&R. Notices the differences here, though. In this action, Kuzma again wants to run the P&R for him to go to his strong hand middle but the Jazz ICE the screen and send him to the baseline. Kuzma capably goes left off the adjusted screen, but he also sees DPOY Rudy Gobert waiting for him in drop coverage near the dotted line. So, Kuzma casually pulls up for the mid-range jumper and cans it.
He’s another sideline P&R, but this time it’s a guard (Lonzo) coming to set the screen. The Hawks do not ICE this action, but Kuzma recognizes the angle to the baseline, then bullies the defender with a shoulder to the chest to get a layup at the basket.
Lastly on the P&R front, I’d be remiss if I didn’t show Kuz just straight up attacking — after all, it’s what he does best. Note the matchup here. Kuzma’s being guarded by Paul Millsap, a PF with a strong defensive reputation but absolutely takes it to him.
Kuzma sees the pick from JaVale at the elbow, but first works away from the screen only to go back to his left hand to attempt to use the pick. Kuz doesn’t do a great job of setting up to his man to get clipped by JaVale, but still works well off the dribble to get a layup.
One of the key actions the Lakers will run this season for their wings are wide pin-down screens to get a shooter coming off a pick where he can, hopefully, step into a jumper. Of the wings on the roster, only KCP is really suited to run this action with any consistency. 2KCP’s lack of size and strength also leads to him coming off this action for far too many curl actions that lead to elbow jumpers, but I digress.Danny Green is a wonderful shooter, but he thrives much more as a spot up option off kick-outs and swing-swing plays to get him his chances. Kuzma, though, can execute this action too.
Here he is against the Spurs coming off a LeBron pin-down, setting his feet while simultaneously turning into his shooting motion, and burying the three.
One of the ways a defense will try to cheat this action is by shooting the gap on the pick, hoping to disrupt the passing angle with a ball denial or, even better, jumping it entirely to get a steal. The proper read on that is to fade the screen by stepping back away from the pick in order to create a passing angle against the cheating defender. Which is exactly what Kuzma does here, drifting back towards the corner, setting his feet, and knocking down the long ball.
Where Kuzma can really thrive, though, is in transition. It remains to be seen how fast the Lakers play this year, but one of the ways they can really hurt teams is by utilizing their strength on the defensive backboards to turn opponents’ misses into open court chances. With LeBron and AD, the Lakers already have two pillars of a dominant fast break offense. Kuzma can add to that with a multitude of skills, both as a finisher and as a ball handler who can take an outlet to create shots for himself and teammates.
This is more a semi-transition basket, but the general principle of shot creation against a non-set defense still applies. After the Lakers push the ball up the floor, Kuzma cuts behind a penetrating Lonzo to catch a pass on the move, dart up the lane line, and finish with a wrong-footed runner off the glass over Clint Capela. The degree of difficulty on this shot is quite high, but Kuz has a knack for knocking down these exact kinds of shots.
Here’s a more traditional open court chance, but this time Kuzma is operating as the main ball-handler after receiving an outlet from LeBron. With his head up, Kuzma surveys the court, sees the glut of bodies in the paint, and fires a cross-court pass to the shooter on the opposite wing for the spot up 3.
Kuzma can also fill the middle lane, as he does here, and get the ball all the way to restricted area. On this play he shovels the ball off to LeBron for the easy finish, but we’ve seen him finish plays like these himself over and over again over the course of his young career.
While a string of clips like the ones above can make Kuzma look like one of the best players in the world, I do understand he has his flaws.
His shot selection has teetered too often towards gunner and his defense, while improved from his rookie year to his 2nd season, still needs work. Kuzma’s shooting also needs to recover to the level of his rookie year if he’s going to be a real threat coming off screens and when working as a spot up option. While his volume of attempts can help generate gravity for spacing purposes, it’s his ability to knock these shots down that will most help the Lakers offense.
There are strides to make and we’d be wise to remember those things as we look at Kuz through the prism of what we want him to be long term.
That said, Kuzma has the offensive skill level to be the wing player the Lakers are missing, even if his official position is still listed as PF. He can be slotted between LeBron and AD in lineups with Davis playing center and capably carry some scoring burden when one or both players are on the bench.
More important, though, Kuzma can operate within the context of Frank Vogel’s sets and be utilized as the SF who comes off picks, cuts off ball, and runs the occasional secondary P&R. And on a team devoid of single perimeter options who can capably perform all these skills, Kuzma has the ability to fill a wing sized hole on this roster.