Wizards

Let’s Put Kuzma’s Quietly Impressive Season into Context

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In an era when the majority of athletes’ social-media accounts are bland and PR-approved representations of popular figures lack any personality outside of their sport, Kyle Kuzma sustains as one of the last of a dying breed. 

Kevin Durant paved the way for NBA players engaging — sometimes directly arguing — with fans, and Kuzma has taken on a more benevolent version of the accessible, full-time NBA player/part-time NBA fan. He held a Q/A on Twitter last week where he answered all kinds of questions, including weighing in on news and movement across the league, memorable moments from his career and even those centered around his role on his own dreadful team.

Kuzma’s Washington Wizards may be one of the league’s worst teams at 3-20, but he has not hid from the masses. And why should he? Through 23 games, he’s less responsible than any of his teammates or coaches for their rut of a record. Kuz is having a career year amidst the on-court despondency, and he’s doing his best to put the poorly constructed team on his back.

Kuzma and Jordan Poole were expected to serve as Washington’s one-two punch entering the season, but the younger Poole has failed to live up to even those modest expectations. The guard is averaging 16.5 points shooting 40% from the floor and 29.1% from three, and he’s been one of the league’s most lubricated turnstiles on defense all the way through.

He’s flown under 40% from the field in 11 of his 22 appearances— a stunning display of shot selection. And he hasn’t been without his highly-visible lowlights, airballing deep threes and muffing easy plays down low.

Aggregating Twitter accounts post Poole’s numbers after every bad game to lead many to believe that Kuzma has been up to the same antics, and that’s where they’re wrong.

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Career-High Marks

The forward’s 23.0 points per game ring in as a career high, as does his 47.7% shooting. He’s taking more threes than ever at 6.2 a game and making 36.6% of them, the highest mark he’s posted in the nation’s capital. His success as the team’s long effective bucket-getter has turned into ugly final possessions in close losses, with the Wizards sometimes relying on him too much to make something happen in the clutch, but he’s proven time and again to show up in every game.

Even in Monday night’s 146-101 loss — Washington’s biggest of the young season — he still gave it all he had. Kuzma attacked the glass over and over again in the first quarter as the Philadelphia 76ers piled up three-point makes, but his 21 points weren’t enough to keep pace with the contenders.

For reference, his scoring average is the 23rd-highest mark in the league, closely behind a couple of former teammates in Brandon Ingram and Anthony Davis. Ingram is a similar-enough player, a skinner scorer with perimeter chops. The Pelicans forward shoots a hair higher from the field, but Kuz has done it with much better three-point numbers and with considerably fewer free-throws.

Some other notable All-Stars in Kuzma’s neighborhood but below him on the scoring ladder include DeMar DeRozan, Jerami Grant, Julius Randle, Jaylen Brown and Jimmy Butler. Kuzma’s field-goal percentage is higher than every single one of those guys, but no one cares because he’s on the Wizards.

And anyone saying that he doesn’t make his teammates better simply isn’t watching. 

Kuzma has always been a competent passer in Washington, it’s just been a question of how often he hunts for other people’s looks as often as his own.

He averaged 3.5 assists per game in his first year as a Wizard. It was a notable jump from his previous season rate of 1.9, as he went from sharing the ball with LeBron James and Davis with Bradley Beal and, later, Kristaps Porzingis. He went up a tick to 3.7 per game last year, but his numbers ballooned to 4.5 this fall as the primary option.

His average is only topped by the pass-first Tyus Jones at 4.9 assists per contest, and they’ve both excelled at driving and kicking. Kuzma has played alongside Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert for a few years now, and has demonstrated good chemistry feeding them the ball on the break and behind the line to get them going.

Kuzma’s all-around efforts have shown in the rebounding department over the years, even if they’ve slipped this season as he’s taken on other responsibilities. 

His Wizards have been the worst rebounding team in the association with 39 boards dragged in per game, and his 5.9 rebounds per contest is the lowest mark he’s averaged in the red, white and blue. He managed as many as 8.5 a game two years ago as a secondary rebounding presence next to Porzingis, but he and the team have floundered without that kind of horse.

Daniel Gafford has led the squad with 7.2 a game to this point, emphasizing the team’s greatest weakness. Still, Kuzma is likely to go off for the occasional double-digit rebounding night, like he almost did against the Sixers with his nine boards alongside those 21 points. 

Critics who look right for his ugly on/off metrics forget that as good as he is, the Wizards are one of the worst teams in the league, and their best player will then play more minutes than any of his teammates. In actuality, his three-level scoring has served as the team’s most reliable weapon night in and night out, and his team would quite literally be winless without him.

About Henry J. Brown

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