The Los Angeles Lakers are at a crossroads. They’ve been in a lull for five seasons now, Kobe Bryant’s 60-point salvo notwithstanding, and with the looming free agencies of Paul George and, um, that guy in Cleveland, the time has come for the young players they’ve accrued over the past few years to show that they’re worth a damn. This is still very much a team that conceives of itself as a top-tier free-agent destination, though as the last two fruitless summers have shown, nice weather and the Laker Mystique are not enough to convince premier players to hitch their wagons to a dreadful team.
The good news: The young guys look pretty good! Larry Nance Jr. is developing! Brandon Ingram is still shaped like a spider but he’s scoring with confidence! After last summer’s draft, the Lakers boasted about selecting someone who would quickly turn into be a star, someone whose versatility made them ideal for the positionless NBA orthodoxy of the day. They drafted that player in the first round, and also they drafted Lonzo Ball 25 picks ahead of him.
Kyle Kuzma isn’t nearly as famous as Ball, and his role on the team wasn’t as obvious as Ball’s (he was part of the D’Angelo Russell trade). Kuzma spent three years at Utah and joined a team replete with other power forward types, like Nance and Julius Randle, who figured to be ahead of him in the rotation. But as soon as he touched hardwood at the Summer League, his talent was obvious.
Kuzma showed he belonged in the NBA at Summer League, and within eight regular season games, he took the starting spot (which Randle lost before the season to Nance). It’s not really hard to see why. Randle is a tremendous athlete and a bruiser down low, but the Lakers already have Brook Lopez. Kuzma has little interest in banging, and his three-point shooting ability opens up lanes for Ball and gives Lopez more space. It’s about more than fit, however, as Kuzma is currently leading the Lakers in scoring and three-point percentage. His 17.4 ppg is second among rookies, and he’s shooting 50.7 percent with a healthy diet of 4.7 threes per game.
Kuzma’s ability to provide both pacing and size is critical for a Lakers team with a point guard who is unable to make a shot. Ball’s shooting has been a matter of intense scrutiny, and while it’s improving, it’s still not, say, good. Kuzma is both willing and able to chuck it, and watching him play, what stands out most is his confidence. He’s perfectly fine pulling up off the dribble, or posting up James Harden and going to the rack, or running up after a break and letting fly from the top of the circle. Kuzma isn’t going to destroy anyone with his athleticism, but he knows where to stand and with a quick release coming from a 6-foot-9 dude, he’ll be able to get his shots off whenever he wants. He brings essentially everything you’d want from a power forward in today’s game aside from rim protection.
Last night, Kuzma had the best game of his rookie season. He didn’t miss in the first half, hitting all nine of his shots with six threes. The Lakers snapped Houston’s 14-game winning streak and Kuzma finished with 38 points, seven boards, and four assists in 40 minutes of work.
Do you think he was nervous holding off a furious Rockets comeback last night? He’s never once wavered in his self belief this season, and his swagger’s made him an easy favorite among Lakers fans.
L.A.’s still bad, even if they’re plenty more capable than nearby toilet-dwellers like Sacramento and Phoenix. However, next summer will be the big one, and and Kuzma’s emergence changes the tenor of the franchise and its potential future. If you want to be sustainably good, you have to nail late first-round picks and unearth players like Kuzma in unobvious spots. He’s someone to build around. The Lakers knew they needed someone like that in the draft, and if they found two, that could be the foundation of a playoff team very soon.