Lakers: Kyle Kuzma has evolved into a defensive-minded role player

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 27: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up to block a shot by Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first half at Staples Center on December 27, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty aImages License Agreement. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 27: Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers goes up to block a shot by Anthony Edwards #1 of the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first half at Staples Center on December 27, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty aImages License Agreement. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Ever since superstar Anthony Davis joined the Los Angeles Lakers, there is one particular Laker whose role has never quite been the same. The player in question is fourth-year forward Kyle Kuzma.

Throughout the course of his first two seasons, Kuzma dazzled the NBA world with his scoring abilities. Kuzma demonstrated his scoring potential in a variety of ways for Los Angeles, leading many to believe he could become a star.

As a result of his efforts, Kuzma earned a spot on the 2017-18 NBA All-Rookie First Team. He averaged 16.1 points per game as a rookie, whilst doing so at a 45 percent clip from the field.

Fortunately for the Lakers, the former Utah Ute did not have a sophomore slump by any means. Kuzma managed to average an even better 18.7 points a night, causing Lakers’ fans to rave about the potential of the youngster.

Despite that being the case as of then, it is safe to say a lot of that raving has come to an abrupt halt. Part of the reason is simply for the reason that Kuzma is no longer as major of a focal point for the team. The addition of Davis will do that, not to mention the fact that the ageless LeBron James was already on the roster prior to AD.

In comparison to his first two seasons, Kuzma has never scored the rock with the same proficiency. The numbers do not lie as they say, for as of when this was written, the Michigan native is dropping just 10.1 points per night for the purple and gold.

Part of this is attributable to his playing time. Kuzma is averaging around 24 minutes per game for L.A., representative of a career-low for the forward. Moreover, the 6-foot-9 player is on pace to potentially record a career-low in field goal percentage as well.

Albeit he is receiving fewer minutes than ever, Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen & Roll recently raised a point that Kuzma’s usage is becoming a bit of a moot point. As a matter of fact, “Kuz” playing less has “helped quietly lead to the highest 3-point percentage he’s ever shot (38.1%).”

While there are shooters out there who are more efficient than Kuzma, this has been a more than welcome sign for L.A. to see. Big man Marc Gasol has provided hardly anything on the offensive end for the team this year, so having a bench player who can space the floor for them is crucial.

Although the 25-year-old has certainly made strides from behind the arc, he has made noticeable improvements in other facets of his game as well. Albeit he still has his fair share of off nights, perhaps the biggest thing for “Kuz” this year has been an elevation in his maturity.

To provide some context, J.R. De Groote of Heavy noted that the ballplayer had a tough time adjusting to a smaller role last season. For what it is worth, Kuzma himself was not afraid to disclose his thoughts on the matter to the media.

While his role with the Lakers has not always been certain, the fourth year Laker has truly carved out his niche this time around. Frankly, what is curious is that he has shown improvement in areas he used to draw heavy amounts of criticism in.

Simply put, Kyle Kuzma has really evolved into a guy who relishes doing the dirty work for the Los Angeles Lakers.

For instance, it would be foolish to not point out the effort he has displayed on the boards.

According to Faigen, No. 0 has been gobbling up more boards per 36 minutes of action than ever in his career (8.4 as of when this was written). However, what really stands out is his extra effort on the offensive end of the floor. Kuzma is averaging 1.6 offensive rebounds per contest, which equates to 2.4 boards per 36 minutes.

In the truest sense of the word, this has been a really encouraging sign to witness. While Lakers’ fans got so accustomed to seeing him being one of the team’s best scoring threats, Kuzma has developed a different mentality that bodes well with what the Lakers are trying to do.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this came in the team’s recent victory against the Nuggets. Per Matt Peralta of Lakers Nation, Kuzma provided an extra edge effort-wise in hauling down two offensive boards.

Games like this reveal that “Kuz” has accepted a role outside of the boundaries of being a scorer for this team. Granted head coach Frank Vogel is aware of Kuzma’s scoring capabilities, Vogel appreciates that Kyle appears to be “at peace” with his role with the Lakers.

"“I feel like he’s at peace with what’s being asked of him, and is going out there and killing it,” head coach Frank Vogel said.“What we talked about a lot last year, he’s being a star in his role. Him coming in and knocking down 3s, and making the right play offensively, sometimes that’s going to lead to a high scoring night, sometimes it’s going to lead to creating for others.“But him playing as hard as he does on both ends of the ball, crashing the boards every single time, running the floor every single time, working his tail off on the defensive end, that’s part of our identity.”"

To learn that Kuzma is at a state of “peace” is great because his role with the Lakers has shifted on more than one occasion. Despite being in just his fourth year, his role has basically been different each season. Expecting someone to constantly adjust his game can be like playing with dynamite, especially when a player remains on the younger side of the spectrum.

That being said, it harkens back to an earlier point that contended just how much Kyle has matured this season. Although he is capable of scoring double-digit figures when he wants to, Vogel and the Lakers are seeing a much more active, engaged version of “Kuz” this season.

Let alone on the boards, he has also become a stronger presence on defense. This has been refreshing to see provided that defense was not necessarily his go-to trademark in the past.

However, games like the latest one versus Denver prove he is progressing in this regard. Kuzma recorded two steals and two blocks in that one, the latter statistic being one where he has shown marked improvement in thus far in 2020-21.

Kuzma is averaging about 1 block per every 36 minutes he plays, which is another department where he is putting up a career-high. He has gotten particularly adept at the chase-down block, something that James has excelled at for many, many years. The fact that Kuzma is willing to run the floor like that and flag someone down is indicative of his improvement as a player.

Considering the Lakers’ desire to win back-to-back titles, this newly found rendition of the Michigan native is precisely what the doctor ordered. Ever since he came to L.A., Vogel has emphasized the importance of defense and Kuzma seems to be grasping that concept more and more.

This is not to say Kuzma is has metamorphosed into this perfect player. Features of his game that still lack are his ball-handling abilities to go along with his playmaking.

Despite those deficiencies, there is no denying that the 25-year-old has become a much better version of himself this season. Certainly, he may not be scoring a bunch of points most nights but is nevertheless contributing to other areas.

Based on what Faigen’s article unfolds, Vogel recognizes this and recently talked about where he thinks “Kuz” has grown the most during the 2020-21 campaign.

"“That’s the biggest area of growth that I think Kuz exhibited towards the end of least year and heading into this year. The running the floor and then working his tail off on the defensive end,” Vogel said. “We’ve seen all those things.”"

It is worth noting that things like effort and defense cannot necessarily be taught. A lot of it strictly boils down to effort and a “want it” sort of mindset. Kuzma is slowly becoming a player who seems to have that trait and desire winning more so than getting his numbers.

Indubitably, he is more than capable of getting his fair share when he wants to. To be honest, he would probably post gaudier numbers on most other teams. In spite of that, Kuz’s evolution has enabled him to see the game from a different focal point.

He has become more of a team player and by sacrificing himself for the betterment of the whole, is more than worthy of the praise Vogel has given him. Sure, he may not be averaging 18 to 20 points per night, yet Kuzma 2.0 is the model this team needs.

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Championship-esque basketball is usually won by the quality of a team’s defense. Thus, assuming Kuzma continues to play this way, it is further reason to believe this team could repeat.