It’s way too early to be way too high on Kyle Kuzma, but the Los Angeles Lakers’ rookie has been the most impressive player this preseason.
The Brooklyn Nets selected Kyle Kuzma 27th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft but traded him to the Lakers along with Brook Lopez for a package that returned Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell. He’s one of the reasons Magic Johnson knocked that draft out of the park. In addition to Kuzma, the Lakers got Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart who will have varying impacts on the game, but both will be productive nonetheless.
Ball’s play throughout the summer league and preseason has been sporadic as he’s dealt with various ailments. It’s nothing major. The Lakers, however, don’t want to risk anything with their franchise cornerstone. Hart’s gotten a fair amount of run, but nothing has stood out. If I’m going to make a rash decision like I am with Kuzma, Hart’s going to be a solid role player. This piece, however, isn’t about him.
Back on Oct. 7, I tweeted that Kuzma (and “literally everyone on the Nets”) was the most surprising player to me after just a handful of preseason games. Neither party has disappointed since. Brooklyn — I suffered through their 20-62 campaign last year — looks much improved on both ends of the ball, and the roster is playing better in the second year together. Individually, though, Kuzma has just been spectacular.
He’s poured in 96 points through five games despite the Lakers being 1-4. He’s also made 56.3 percent of his shots despite his three-ball being virtually non-existent (29.6 percent). Los Angeles is nine points better with Kuzma on the floor to start the preseason, which is the second-highest rating on the team among players who have logged more than 50 minutes (Alex Caruso is first at plus-19). As gaudy as the numbers are, it’s the style of play that’s fueling all of this hype. When the Lakers drafted Brandon Ingram second overall in 2016, everyone expected him to come in and force coaches to shatter their clipboards because of his ability to hit shots from all over the floor. That has yet to happen.
The sample size we have for Kuzma is remarkably small. And I’m sure a lot of people are going to be frustrated with me for writing this. If this were during the summer league, then yes, I’d be disappointed with me too. However, the preseason is different. The teams are throwing out the same players they’re going to use once the season rolls around; unlike the NFL, the starters and reserves play a nice chunk of the game, and that means it’s okay to be impressed when a player continues to do head-scratching things. He’s going to see those same seven or eight guys during the regular season.
Kuzma’s playing the same way he did with Utah. During his junior year, he averaged 16.4 points and shot 50.4 percent from the field with a PER of 25.1 — those were fifth, eighth and eighth-best in the conference, respectively. At 6-9, Kuzma has proved to be a matchup nightmare, and it’s only intensified as the games have progressed. His first step is quick for a player his size, but the finesse part of Kuz’s game has become more and more impressive during his time with the Lakers. He’s still a reliable jumper away from being the perfect go-to scorer, but I anticipate a ton of open looks once the season gets started. The traits above are endearing, but nothing has made me look more perplexed than Kuzma’s footwork. And that’s such a nerdy thing to say, but it’s also a quality that all of the most skilled players have.
At 22, Kuzma has the grace and balance of someone who’s already in their prime, and that makes up for the lack of jaw-dropping athleticism. We got our first taste of it in his preseason debut.
The Lakers met the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Kuzma poured in 19 while going 9-of-12 from the field. It was marvelous. I can imagine how giddy the fanbase was. With about five-and-a-half minutes left in the third, Taj Gibson (who isn’t a slouch defensively) was on guard at the top of the key, and he had no chance of contesting Kuzma’s 20-foot stepback jumper. For someone like Stephen Curry, that kind of shot is child’s play. But let’s remember that Kuzma is about six inches taller than our two-time MVP. Even though the league is trending toward versatile forwards, how many at that size — who aren’t named Kevin Durant — can knock down those shots consistently?
About a minute later, Kuzma wowed us again by swishing a running left-handed hook shot over Karl-Anthony Towns. I’m left-handed and can barely shoot a left-handed hook. (I’m also not a professional basketball player, so take that for what it’s worth.) The best part was as he trotted back on defense. He gave this look that was slightly quizzical but also like “Yeah, I made a hook. I’ve been doing it my whole life. Why are you shocked?”
Kuzma does things like that routinely. I hope that he continues to do it for 13 more years.
There’s this one move he made against the Denver Nuggets on Oct. 4 that was just scintillating. It was the first glimpse of his exceptional footwork, and the guinea pig was Malik Beasley, who’s not the worst defender in the world but is assuredly far from the best. At 6-5, Beasley isn’t too undersized, but Kuzma still has four inches on him. On this particular play, the Nuggets rising sophomore did an excellent job sliding and beating Kuzma to the baseline. It was picture perfect defense. And then Beasley got burned like a piece of firewood.
After Kuzma went baseline to no avail, he spun back to his left and planted and gave Beasley a hard shoulder fake, which he would’ve nicely defended if he didn’t jump. Once Kuzma discarded Beasley, he pivoted back to his right and kissed a floater off the glass. It’s a simple move for a veteran who spends most of their time in the low post. Kyle Kuzma is not a veteran, nor does he spend a lot of time on the block.
I believe that it will always be impressive when rookies do things we aren’t used to seeing them do. They haven’t yet adjusted to any part of the NBA — the pace of the game, the size, speed and skill level of their opponents, etc. Kuzma looks just fine, and it makes you think about how much of a difference those additional years at school make. After three seasons at Utah, Kuzma smoothness compared to some of his one-and-done peers is encouraging. On Tuesday night, during an 18-point performance against the Utah Jazz, Kuzma put Thabo Sefolosha in the spin cycle.
Utah’s newest wing has spent 11 years as an elite wing defender and recorded the league’s fifth-highest defensive box plus/minus in 2017 (3.1). Kuzma caught an outlet pass from Alex Caruso before whirling by Sefolosha, who lunged for the ball before being left in the dust. I don’t know how many teens would’ve had the confidence to make that move.
Kyle Kuzma has dazzled this preseason. However, we have to wait and see if he sustains this before drawing some more extreme opinions. At 6-9, he’s got a skill set that’s diverse enough on offense to be a real problem for opponents, and there’s the chance he becomes the Lakers go-to scorer over Lonzo Ball or Brandon Ingram. I’ll admit that I was late to the party, but I feel confident in Kuzma’s ability once the season starts.
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