Every Lakers game without LeBron James is an adventure. Los Angeles is 3-5 since the King went down on Christmas Day, and they’ve looked like three-day-old trash at times—they even lost to the Knicks.
One bright spot in the LeBron-less hinterlands has been Kyle Kuzma, who is pretty clearly the second-best player on the team. On Wednesday night in L.A., Kuzma set a new career high in points, with 41 in just 29 minutes of play, as the Lakers beat the thoroughly-mediocre Pistons 113-100.
Kuzma’s barrage of points was helped by hitting five three-pointers, but he did most of his work at the rim.
The second-year wing has averaged nearly 26 points and seven boards in the five full games he’s played without LeBron. Kuzma injured his back against Oklahoma City on January 2nd, and subsequently missed losses against New York and Minnesota; not coincidentally, those were the worst games the Lakers have played since LeBron hit the bench.
While Kuzma’s three-point shooting has been a below-average 27.7 percent during this stretch, he has been making his mark by taking over attacking duties. He’s cutting to the rim and finishing both with power and from nifty angles, while also leading hyper-effective fast breaks.
While they might not be up to Burneko’s standards of what constitutes a good fast break, Kuzma’s ability to fill the lane in transition led to easy buckets all night for the Lakers against Detroit:
Even when the fast breaks were sloppy, Kuzma still ended up with the ball and an easy finish:
It wasn’t just on the break that Kuzma shined on Wednesday, though; his first points of the night came from a nifty pump fake behind the arc, creating just enough separation to fly by Griffin and float it in over the rest of the Pistons.
He also can just dribble right past dudes, as Bruce Brown found out early in the first quarter:
You never want to have LeBron in a suit, and the Lakers have been mostly butt since his groin injury on Christmas Day. But one of few benefits of not having the greatest player in the league on the floor is that everyone else has a rare chance to step up and plug in the holes.
While a big portion of Kuzma’s value comes from his ability to stretch the floor around LeBron, he’s also finishing at the rim this season at a much higher rate than last year (71.8 percent vs. 64 percent). And though the Baby Lakers slowed their usual pace against Detroit—Los Angeles averages 104.9 possessions for the season, but only clocked in at 94 on Wednesday—Kuzma took every opportunity to sprint behind his last man and cherry-pick at the rim, particularly in the first half.
He still provided his usual sharpshooting frenzy with those five three-pointers, but with the Lakers’ main ball-handler sidelined for at least a little while longer, Luke Walton could do worse than building an offense that lets Kuzma feast on transition buckets and slashing to the rim.