When Kyle Kuzma was asked about what his primary focus was heading into this season he didn’t mention more consistent scoring, ball handling, or even improving his 3-point shooting. These are obviously all areas that matter to Kuz and would help his overall trajectory as an impact player, but entering into his 4th year and looking to grow his game he instead said something much less glamorous: defense.
You see, Kuz is no dummy. He made real strides defensively last season, showing real chops as a wing defender whose size and quick feet allowed him to stay in front of perimeter talents and effectively challenge shots.
Growing and improving that ability this year would almost surely mean more responsibility alloted to him, and responsibility often translates to playing time. If Kuz is on the court more, his want to score the ball could be better fullfilled. Said another way, you can’t score from the bench and you end up on the bench by not playing defense. Especially when your coach is Frank Vogel.
Wanting to be better at something, however, doesn’t make it so. Particularly on defense. You have to actually commit to playing harder and smarter on that side of the ball to truly make meaningful strides. And, early on this year, Kuz is showing that commitment and reaping the benefits of those extra efforts.
Where this is showing up the most is in Kuz’s blocked shot numbers. Through 7 games, Kuz has 8 total blocked shots this year, good for 1.1 per night. That’s a huge leap from previous seasons where he averaged 0.4 blocks per game in each of his first 3 years in the league. I know it’s early in the year and it’s fair to be skeptical that he can keep things up at this rate. But, when you look at the types of blocks he’s getting, I’m more bullish than I thought I’d be before looking at the tape. Here’s a sampling:
Most of these plays are simply about engagement and effort. Be it showing the right awareness and dropping down as a weakside help defender, hustling in transition, or simply staying attached to his primary assignment, Kuz isn’t doing anything that is extraordinary here. He’s just playing hard and making the plays that are born from activity and commitment.
Beyond the emphasis on extra effort, though, a couple of other things stand out to me here — and they work hand in hand.
First, as more of a perimeter defender now, the spots on the floor Kuz operates from has changed. No longer a PF who would be a pure backline defender, his rotations often come from the extended wing and from the blindside of offensive players who are diving to the rim. Second, Kuz is just bigger than you think. At a legit 6’9″, he’s able to cover ground and get up to challenge shots that many other normal sized wings wouldn’t be able to.
When you combine the sneakiness of both his height and the positions he’s in to challenge some of these shots, there’s an unexpectedness that allows him to pick up blocks at a fairly consistent rate. Especially when he’s playing as hard and showing the type of awareness that he is in help situations.
When Dwight Howard left in free agency for the 76ers and JaVale McGee was traded to the Cavs, the Lakers lost two of the league’s better shot blocking big men. Those two combined to block 2.5 shots per game and were both ranked in the top 20 of shots swatted away nightly. The Lakers were expected, then, to decline in this area even though they retained one of the NBA’s best shot blockers in Anthony Davis.
The Lakers have indeed fallen in the blocked shot rankings this season, but the decline has not been as precipitous as I expected. Surprisingly, though, it’s not because AD has been even more stellar than he was last season. Davis, who ranked 3rd in the NBA last year with 2.7 blocks a game is actually underpeforming there to begin this year, averaging only 0.8 blocks a night.
Instead, one of the main reasons the Lakers are still in the top 10 in blocks per game and are only down 0.9 blocks per night from last season16.6 blocks per game last season, 5.7 blocks per game this year is because of Kuz and the growth he’s showing as a rim protector, even if it’s not coming in the ways you’d expect from a guy who started out his career as a PF.
Now, maybe Kuz’s block numbers don’t remain this high the rest of the year. It’s hard to block a shot a game from the wing. That said, there are ingredients here that lead to me to believe that they can. And if they do, the Lakers can remain one of the better shotblocking teams in the league, even if it’s not in the way we were used to last season.