Is Kyle Kuzma evolving into more than a scorer? The Lakers think so
LOS ANGELES – Kyle Kuzma pointed at Luke Walton and nodded toward the basket, which still quivered from Tyson Chandler’s reverse dunk amid the Lakers’ 40-point second quarter on Sunday. The play embodied a subtle evolution in Kuzma’s game in his second NBA season.
After LeBron James had slung a pass to Kuzma in the lane, the starting forward pump-faked before dumping the ball to Chandler for the jam. So he pointed at Walton to reinforce his point.
“He’s always talking about me not passing the ball,” Kuzma said. “So I had to make sure he saw that one.”
Kuzma emerged as a star during his rookie campaign thanks to a fearless attitude toward scoring, averaging 16.1 points while shooting 13 times per game. With the arrival of James in the offseason, Kuzma’s role was bound to change. He would have to be more judicious with his shots and also find ways to make an impact outside of scoring.
In recent games, he seems to have answered the call, earning praise from Walton for his defense on players such as Utah’s Joe Ingles as well as his ball movement.
“He is doing a nice job of, for the most part right now, making the extra pass,” Walton said of Kuzma.
“And defensively he was good again today. We’re putting him on guys that play the point guard. We’re putting him on guys that are centers.”
Reputations harden fast in the NBA. It’s difficult to break perceptions, but Kuzma is trying.
“I think the narrative is that I just don’t play defense,” he said. “But if you watched as the season really progressed, I’ve been getting better and better every single game. Making the effort. I just want to be a complete player and all great players do it on both ends.”
Kuzma has tried to be more aggressive, not giving players as much space as he used to. He also has benefited from matching up with more players on the perimeter, chasing the likes of Ingles and Indiana’s Bojan Bogdanovic through mazes of screens.
In the process, he has learned to love, well, the process.
“A lot of times, I’m really conservative,” Kuzma said. “And I give guys kind of too much respect and the past few games I’ve just been trying to be ultra-aggressive, getting up in guys. It’s really getting me amped up and excited to play defense.”
Kuzma is not about to evolve into the kind of player like fellow young teammates Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball are. Triple-doubles aren’t exactly his game. He is still a scorer first – just not exclusively.
In the Lakers’ 120-96 win over Phoenix on Sunday, Kuzma scored a team-high 23 points while sprinkling in eight rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block. He shot 8-for-14 from the field.
“He’s not allowing anybody to just put a cap on him just saying he’s a scorer,” James said. “I think he wants to be more than that. He’s been continuing to get better and better, not only offensively but defensively as well. Just playing all-around solid basketball. His ability to make plays. His ability to rebound as of late. Obviously, we know how well he can score. But he wants to make more of an impact for not only him individually but for this team.”
Through 23 games, Kuzma’s offensive numbers are on track with his output last season. He averages 16.3 points while shooting 46.9 percent. His 3-point percentage has dipped below 30 percent (he was just 3-of-8 from beyond the arc on Sunday).
Michael Beasley did not play meaningful minutes for the Lakers through the first month of the season. He appeared in only four of their first 19 games, although he spent part of that time away from the team due to a family health matter.
It was starting to feel as though the trust Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka put in the 29-year-old with a $3.5 million contract had been misplaced. After gradually earning rotation minutes over the previous three games, Beasley exploded offensively on Sunday (at least by his standards).
He entered the game with the Lakers trailing 31-21 after the first quarter and quickly scored five points and assisted on a 3-pointer to Ingram. In barely two minutes, the Lakers had erased the deficit and tied the game – thanks to a 10-0 run keyed by Beasley.
By the time the night concluded, Beasley scored a season-high 14 points in 13 minutes, his most of the season.
“I love the game,” Beasley said. “So whether I’m playing or not playing, tired or not, I play every day. We responded well.”
Walton made sure to highlight Beasley’s performance.
“What he and that second group did as far as cutting that off right then, and then we slowly started taking control again, was a huge turning point in that game,” Walton said. “We have a very deep team and different nights it’s going to be different guys, but as of right now he’s done a really nice job the last couple of games and I would expect to play him in the future.”