Lakers

Do Kuzma’s Skills Match His Reputation?

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If you check social media, the answer is most certainly no. They will tell you he peaked his rookie season and he is just being overhyped because he is a Laker.

It’s a lot deeper than that, however. The question is a multilayered one that starts with your definition of “good.” Judging by the three-year, $40 million contract extension, Rob Pelinka and Lakers brass must think so. But what do the numbers say?

Rookie Surprise

Kyle Kuzma entered the league as an older rookie after playing three years at Utah. He wowed at summer league, winning championship game MVP while outshining one of the most hyped rookies in NBA history– his teammate Lonzo Ball.

In Kuz’s rookie season, he tied teammates Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle for the Laker scoring leader at 16.1 points per game. Kuzma would go on to finish fourth in Rookie of The Year voting behind three future All-Stars: Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum.

Sophomore Star

The next year, LeBron James joined the team, bringing a bevy of nationally televised games. Kuzma increased his scoring to 18.7 points per game that year and became the King’s number one option throughout the season. During his second year, Anthony Davis trade talks ran wild, with the Lakers reportedly offering the kitchen sink for the Pelicans’ big man. Included in that mammoth offer was Kuzma, but no deal transpired.

In the offseason, a trade between the two organizations took place and to the surprise of many, Kuz was not involved. Pelinka and the Lakers decided to maintain a no-Kuzma stance in negotiations because they saw him as such a huge piece of their core.

Role Change

How did Kuzmania fair with the Brow in Tinseltown their first season together?

In a word, complicated.

If you would have told any Laker fan in the preseason that Kuzma would be a big part of their championship-winning core, they would have taken that in a heartbeat. Kuzma was the third-leading scorer on a championship squad– 99% of players would take that. The issue was that it was a career-low 12.8 PPG on a career-low 53.5 true-shooting percentage. He had the second-worst offensive and defensive rating out of any Laker who received regular minutes. Those numbers could be credited with him becoming the team’s sixth man for the first time in his career. He did get better in the bubble, though, where he averaged 15.3 PPG on 57% TS%.

Current Day

Coming into this year, many suspected this would be a make-or-break season for his future with the club. This season would also allow the team to see how much Kuzma could be worth in free agency. Other — arguably better — power forwards from his draft class are in similar situations. All those narratives got wiped away when the team extended him, thinking he had proven enough and earned the lofty pay day.

So how has he fared? It has been a mixed bag. As of January 14th, Kuz is averaging a career-low 10.5 points on 54% true shooting. His career lows are across the board — including steals, rebounds and assists —  but he is no longer a defensive liability.

Contemporaries?

Additionally, Kuzma has become one of the streakiest shooters in the league this season. When he is in the zone, there are few that can stop him (see above). Once his contract kicks in, he will be making money similar to players like Luke Kennard, Davis Bertans, Terrence Ross, Jordan Clarkson and Malik Beasley. These role players have similar skillsets to Kuzma with their streaky shooting and defensive limitations.

How does Kuzma compare to those players? Using last year as a bigger sample size, Kuzma is a step behind. He is last in points, points per possession and true-shooting percentage (Using Beasley’s numbers in Minnesota). He is getting the fewest minutes out of everyone and the only one on a contender besides Clarkson. When expanded to compare him to the average small forward and power forward, he is below average in FG%, 3P%, FT%, eFG% and TS%.

Kuzma is considered a scorer, but even what he does best is at a below-average level. At this point in his career, he cannot be categorized as anything but below average. He is a bench player who is best utilized in short bursts.

Lakers Should Continue Retaining Kuz

What should the Lakers do with Kuzma? Hold on to him. He is a great locker-room presence and the only first-round pick drafted by the organization still on the team. It is an adjustment playing off ball with two of the best players in the world. He is a valuable piece to a championship team and should push himself to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

The Lakers have prioritized role players who can play multiple positions around AD and LeBron. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Talen Horton-Tucker are all young players who compliment the two MVP candidates. They have all rotated from bench to starter roles and have the versatility to play multiple positions.

Kyle Kuzma is not going to be an All-Star like Tatum, Mitchell, Simmons or even Ingram. The expectations Lakers’ fans placed on him when he impressed his first couple of seasons were unreasonable and unrealistic. He is a finished product, but a solid NBA player. He is not what I would define as “good” compared to players making similar money at a similar age.

The fourth-year forward is average, but when you have these comparisons to All-NBA caliber players like Tatum and Ingram, he is going to be nothing but a disappointment. Fans need to stop comparing him to these guys and start comparing him to the role players on his team. Kuzma was drafted 27th overall in the 2017 Draft and did not have comparisons to NBA greats.

We need to stop writing articles like these just one year into players’ careers.

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About Max Levy

Lakers social media manager and insider

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