A defensive-minded Kyle Kuzma is dialed in for Lakers

It’s time for somebody on the Los Angeles Lakers to step up. That someone very well could be Kyle Kuzma. With All-Star forward Anthony Davis possibly out for a couple of weeks, Kuzma has an opportunity to step back into a starring role and cement his worth to the Lakers.

Actually, with his contract extension signing prior to the 2020-21 NBA season, Kuzma probably has already done that. But with Davis sidelined because of an injury, Kuzma could be called on by head coach Frank Vogel to help fill the scoring hole that Davis has left open.

Then again, replacing Davis and his 22.5 points and eight rebounds a game just might be a game-by-game matter with everyone pitching in, said team leader LeBron James.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma has seen his minutes and scoring output decrease during the 2020-21 NBA season, he has improved his offensive rebounding game. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline

“It’s next man up,” James said after scoring 30 points and adding 13 rebounds in the Lakers’ 112-104 road win against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday, Feb. 16. “It’s next man up. We’re not expecting not one person…we’re not expecting one person to pick up A.D’s productivity. Nobody’s going to be able to do that. He just brings too much to the table, but we all can do more. We call can collectively do more and that’s our job. That’s our job to come out and do more.”

Just about every team in the NBA has their own version of the Big Three. If you look around the league you’ll see this scenario play out in a city near you. Well-orchestrated trios have become almost like a fashion trend of late in the NBA.

The Brooklyn Nets have made a big splash with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and James Harden. During their championship cycle, the Golden State Warriors lined up Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. Doc Rivers and the Philadelphia 76ers have assembled Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris together on the floor.

The Utah Jazz counter with Donavan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley. The Los Angeles Clippers can answer the bell with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams. The Denver Nuggets starting lineup features Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jockic. So what do the Los Angeles Lakers do to offset what other teams around the league are trying to do?

Stay the course. What’s interesting is when the topic of the Big Three comes up, the Lakers are usually reduced to the dynamic duo of James and Davis. True, when Davis is fully healthy, he and James form a real tough dynamic to get by. The third nugget in this discussion is Kuzma now in his fourth season in the NBA.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) pauses in between the action against the New York Knicks at STAPLES Center. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline

By default, offseason pickup Montrezl Harrell could easily be third-billing for the Lakers. But Kuzma gives the Lakers something that hype-man Harrell can’t do. Outside of James and Davis, Kuzma is perhaps the most athletic player the Lakers have on their roster, although Lakers’ newbie Talen Horton-Tucker is pushing those boundaries.

People sleep on Kuzma being that third-wheel riding shotgun with James and Davis as the Lakers look to repeat this season as NBA champions. Maybe it’s because Kuzma is not putting up the scoring numbers this season as he has in his previous three years in the league. Almost midway into the 10-game shortened NBA season (72 games), Kuzma is scoring 11 points a game.

That’s way down from the 18.7 points a game he was putting up during the 2018-19 season. For Vogel and the Lakers that doesn’t matter. Efficiency does. Kuzma’s minutes have been reduced this season to just 24 minutes per game, down from the 33 minutes he averaged during that 2018-19 season.

Then when you look at the number of field goal attempts he is taking per game this season, it’s no wonder why Kuzma is not doing as much as he has done in the previous season. At least to the naked eye. So far this season, Kuzma is putting up only 9.6 shot attempts per game. That pales in comparison to the 15.5 shot attempts a game he averaged during the 2018-19 campaign.

But when he needs to open up the scoring window, Kuzma, as he did in a Lakers recent home game against the Memphis Grizzlies, showed he can do what he needs to do at any given time. Kuzma’s 20-point and 10-rebound effort aided the Lakers’ 115-105 win against the Grizzlies at STAPLES Center, highlighting the fourth-year forward’s value to the team.

Kyle Kuzma (0) going up for the short jumper over the outstretched hands of Danilo Gallinari (8). December 28, 2018 Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles Clippers vs Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on December 28, 2018. (Photo by Jevone Moore)

James sees the maturity jump in Kuzma who is now presenting a more well-rounded game for the Lakers.

“He’s four-year older,” said James, who scored 28 points and came within a couple of bounces short of producing a triple-double with 9 rebounds and 8 assists against the Grizzlies. “You can tell he’s grown,” obviously. Every year you get more mature and more mature. You know what you like, what you don’t like. He understands it. He knows who he is. He understands that. It all depends [on] what you want in this sport to be honest.

“You can have a lot of young guys, even vets at times, too…Do you want to score a bunch of points, but sometimes it doesn’t really matter? It doesn’t make a difference in winning and losing. Or do you want to be part of something special where you continue to get better, and you continue to make an impact, and you have a role on the team where you’re playing for something that’s more than than the sum of your individuality, and you’re trying to play for a championship? Things of that nature. I know that’s always a fine line, especially for your young guys,” James added.

When you look across the board of the Lakers’ roster, the presence of the board-banging Harrell, the quiet offensive and defensive efficiency of guard Dennis Schroder, the lethal 3-point shooting of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the resiliency of Alex Carouso, and the veteran leadership of Marc Gasol, the Lakers seem to have the pieces in place to make another title run.

Kuzma is the X-factor in that quest. With a contract extension presented and signed just before the 2020-21 season kicked off, the Lakers know what they have in Kuzma.

Kyle Kuzma
Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) gets off a long-range shot over Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns. During the 2020-21 NBA season, Kuzma is averaging 11 points and six rebounds per game for the Lakers. Photo/File: Mark Hammond/News4usonline

“It is especially gratifying for our Lakers franchise to draft, develop and now sign one of our own to a contract extension,” Lakers General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka said. “Kyle has shown tremendous growth over the last three years and played a crucial role on last season’s championship team. Kyle has been a terrific member of the Lakers community and we are all very excited about his continued future with us.”

Kuzma has developed from a high-flying scorer to a better all-around player that the Lakers can count on to do other things besides putting the ball in the basket. But as he showed in a 41-point outburst against the Detroit Pistons back in 2019, Kuzma is lethal enough on the scoring end to still cause teams a headache or two.

Because of the scoring output of Davis and KCP, the Lakers haven’t really needed Kuzma to put up a lot of points. With Davis and James dominating the lion’s share of the scoring for the Lakers on most nights, Kuzma has earned his keep doing the dirty of going after the ball off the glass a little bit more.

Kuzma is averaging six rebounds a game with nearly two boards coming on the offensive end. Those may be pedestrian numbers to some people, but they mark an improvement for Kuzma on grabbing offensive rebounds. In the last two seasons, Kuzma could muster just 0.9 offensive rebounds a game. This season he’s upped that margin to 1.8 rebounds.

“I’m just trying to get the damn ball, really,” Kuzma said. “That’s really it. I’ve been blessed with a nose for the ball, figuring out where it goes off the rim. Other than that, just go get the ball.”

Besides working on his offensive rebounding game, the Lakers can count on Kuzma to play some old-fashioned, tough-nosed defense, which has been a hallmark of his since coming into the league.

“Just coming out playing hard, playing defense,” Kuzma said. “I’m trying to become a great defender and that’s where I kind of mark my basis on every night on how I play or not. Got to keep shooting the ball better…still figuring that out. Other than that, I really base everything defensively, especially on this team. [You’re] limited to opportunities offensively. I’ve got to make my mark on the other side of the ball.”

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