REPORTED BY: ALEX REGLA/BLEACHERREPORT
After months of watching from the sidelines — and doing so in two different continents at that — it took Kyle Kuzma only nine seconds to hoist up his first shot when he finally stepped back onto the floor for the Lakers.
As the first man off the bench against the Mavericks on Friday night, Kuzma caught a rifle of a pass from Danny Green before setting his feet and firing away on a wide-open three from the top of the arc.
It was Kuzma’s first opportunity to nail the type of shot he struggled with a season ago (31.9%; second-worst among all players who attempted 200 threes with six + feet of space). The ball hit the back iron as a sea of blue jerseys quickly swallowed up the miss.
In just 18 minutes of shaking off the rust, Kuzma finished his season debut 0-4 from 3-point range, but chipped in nine points in the team’s win. On Sunday, he registered just five points in only 15 minutes in yet another road win for the team.
More importantly than his makes or misses however, is the simple fact that he is back on the floor. Because despite Kuzma clearly not quite having his sea legs back yet and the Lakers winning anyway, how he plays this season very well may determine how far the Lakers go.
Let me explain.
What has Kuzma been working on?
Despite being hampered by a stress reaction in his left ankle, Kuzma still got valuable reps during summer school this offseason.
During his time with Team USA, the 24-year-old worked under the tutelage of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (who continues to glow about coaching Kuzma) and his acclaimed national team staff. Kuzma said recently that he learned “a lot from” the experience.
His time overseas and working with some of the game’s brightest minds also carried over once he returned home, as he has taken part in countless training sessions with new Lakers assistant coach — and player development guru/personal basketball Yoda for hire — Phil Handy.
When asked recently about what specific aspects of his game he’s been working on with Handy, Kuzma mainly detailed fine-tuning elements that would help bolster his individual scoring.
“A lot of ball-handling stuff. Getting into my pull-up, isolation work. Footwork on the post. A lot of good things that suit my game well,” Kuzma told reporters.
And while he’s been tasked with working predominately off-ball since the second LeBron James moved to Los Angeles, Kuzma learning the nuances of playing on-ball is not necessarily a bad thing.
He will of course continue to be asked to cut and spot-up like in the past, but if he’s going to be the team’s sixth man, this mainly means playing beside either James or Anthony Davis at all times within Frank Vogel’s staggering pattern.
Kuzma’s ability to take on extra offensive responsibility during those minutes could go a long way in reducing the wear and tear on those two stars. An area, among three, he specifically pinpointed in terms of his offseason focus plan.
“Obviously everybody knows I can score, and I believe I can score when I have the ball, but I want to take it to the next level and really make my teammates better,” Kuzma told the ESPN broadcast team. “Defensively, (I) just keep trying to improve… And probably my handle. So probably those three.”
And although the Lakers have won five of their first six games and sit atop of the Western Conference standings, the aspects Kuzma laid out align directly with notable weaknesses the team still needs to address, and are areas he hopefully can help with.
What do the Lakers need?
The Lakers went about crafting their roster in a very traditional sense this offseason. You have your two stars in James and Davis, and surrounding them are a slew of complementary pieces who theoretically are there to take advantage of the two star’s gravity when thrown the ball.
One dimension the team is devoid of, however, is another player who can soak up some of the usage and on-ball duties. Both in individual scoring, and in terms of creating opportunities for others.
On the season, Davis and James are accounting for nearly half of the Lakers’ scoring output alone (James alone is dishing a league-leading 11.2 assists per game) and both are sporting usage rates that totter over 32%.
The team’s bench is especially dependent on other’s creating to score, but are also missing the shots that are presented to them. As of this article, the Lakers’ reserves are 24th in the league in points per game, and are shooting a mere 26.4% from three, both things that leave Davis and James to pick up even more of the slack. If Kuzma can make the strides he wants to as an on-ball threat and playmaker, he could help soften that load.
The team would additionally benefit in finding someone they can plop onto opposing star wings. As seen in their opener against the Clippers — aka the nationally televised massacre of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope courtesy of Kawhi Leonard — the Lakers need to find a serviceable option in these matchups beyond only Danny Green.
Against Dallas, the team tried out Avery Bradley on Luka Doncic. Despite giving admirable effort, Bradley ultimately proved too small to hinder what was a monster game by Doncic. This is where Kuzma, who is 6’9” and 220, could potentially slide in.
While never a player recognized for his defensive prowess, Kuzma made strides as a sophomore on that end. And as he previously noted, defense is also an area that was one of his chief focuses this offseason, something that was on full display during his short stint with Team USA.
Kuzma proving able to perform these aspects could be a major boon for the Lakers. Not only in terms of his individual value, but also by lessening the workload of the team’s stars.
Still, those are big ifs, which brings us to one final question.
How has Kuzma looked so far?
So far — which it should be noted is only 35 minutes of playing time — Kuzma looks very much like a player who has not played competitive basketball in a few months, which is to be expected. However, there have been signs that what he worked on may have stuck.
For one, he has made a few impressive reads on the floor. No, Kuzma is not expected to be a dominant pick-and-roll initiator who makes high-level decisions, but if he can grab and go on occasion and lure extra defenders, windows will naturally present themselves to make plays, and it will be up to him to capitalize on them.
Kuzma has also had encouraging individual moments on defense, most notably when matched up with LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. Kuzma has the coordination and physical tools to be a reliable to good defender, but buying in and proving it on the court is what ultimately counts. That hasn’t always been there in the past, but will need to be.
But while there have been positives, Kuzma still needs to iron out the kinks as he works himself back into game shape. Yes, he has made some nice passes in his few minutes back, but has also had some miscues. For example, this sequence against Dallas.
After Boban Marjanovic teetered to the floor and with Jalen Brunson on his hip, Kuzma essentially had two options in this scenario: pull up for a midrange opportunity or make the simple-but-correct read in kicking it out to Troy Daniels (a career 39.8% shooter from behind the arc). Kuzma eyed Daniels before taking the shot.
While not the end of the world, and ultimately a very makable shot that Kuzma simply misses, it is an example of a play that will need to become second nature for him going forward.
These are expected growing pains for a player who missed all of training camp and has only played two games so far, especially given that Kuzma is now trying to find his way for the first time on a team with two stars. A degree of reprogramming will need to take place, and an acceptance of his role and status will need to be embraced.
There is little reason to believe those things can’t happen. But make no mistake, despite the Lakers’ strongest start in years, to reach their fullest potential, they’ll need Kuzma to find his way as well. Winning while getting little from him is great, but the highest level this team can hit requires Kuzma finding his stride in a new role. It’s fair to give him more than two games to do it, but his progress is very much worth monitoring closely.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.