It is hard not to cheer for Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma. He has been an underdog his entire life and takes nothing for granted in his quest to become a success both on and off the court.
He has achieved a great deal of acclaim in the short time he has been a professional basketball player, but he remains humble and focused. As opposed to last season, when there were no expectations after he was the 27th pick in the draft, Kuzma now faces a much different reality.
The signing of LeBron James thrust the Lakers into the national spotlight in a big way. After all, he has been to eight consecutive NBA finals and anything less with the Lakers would be branded a disappointment.
But James, no matter how good he is, can’t do it all by himself. When Paul George spurned the Lakers, and the front office did not sign a second star, it became a foregone conclusion that for the team to meet or exceed expectations this season, Kuzma and Brandon Ingram were going to have to step up in a big way as consistent scoring options behind James.
The first six weeks of the season have not always been pretty, as Kuzma, like the entire team, has struggled to meet the challenge of learning to play a supporting role next to James.
Entering the season, he was well aware of the popular narrative that he is a one dimensional player who scores but does nothing else. He is working hard to become a complete player, and as he proved this past week, he is making good strides towards meeting that goal.
The week of games started with an ugly, blowout loss to the Denver Nuggets. Kuzma was the team’s leading scorer that night with 21 points on 9-of-15 from the field to go along with a team-leading 3 assists and 3 rebounds. James and Ingram were both held to 14 points.
The Lakers bounced back in the next game, a home victory over the Indiana Pacers. James was unstoppable with 38 points, but Kuzma played an effective sidekick with 11 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists.
He also played quality defense, which is something for which he has been criticized for in the past, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly. For anyone who has paid attention, Kuzma’s defense is much improved this season.
Against the Dallas Mavericks, another Lakers’ victory, Kuzma had one of the best all-around games of his career with 15 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists. It was perhaps the first game all season when he resembled the Kyle Kuzma from last season.
The 12 rebounds was a reminder of the fact that Kuzma was very effective on the boards as a rookie.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton has repeatedly told Kuzma that he needs to more consistently make the extra pass, and there were times this year when that message really sunk in. His 6 assists against the Mavericks was one such moment, and it was a good sign that Kuzma is working hard to become the complete player he always says is his aim.
In the final game of the week, a win over the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma was again the Lakers’ top scorer with 23 points, 18 of which came in the first half when the team came back from a huge first quarter deficit to take control of the game.
The Lakers were so far ahead that he only played 28 minutes, but he also had 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and a steal. James, Ingram and Lonzo Ball were prone to turnovers, but Kuzma only had one.
After the game, James revealed in an interview that not only was Kuzma the first Laker to contact him when his signing was announced in July, but that Kuzma had actually reached out to him last year to pick his brain after the Lakers played the Cleveland Cavaliers.
In his quest to become the best player possible, Kuzma has often turned to James, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or anyone else who has something to share that could make him a better player.
While the other members of the Lakers young core play largely the same style as they did last season, for anyone who has watched carefully Kuzma has noticeably changed his game to try to fit in with James.
Last season, he was mostly a catch-and-shoot player, but this year he is giving the ball up more quickly to his teammates and moving well without it to get closer looks around the basket where James has often found him with pinpoint passes.
It has not always worked. Too often this season it looked like Kuzma was thinking too much and trying to hard to fit in, which made him hesitate to shoot. As a result, his 3-point shooting, which was his calling card last season, has been in a slump.
But in the past two games he connected on three 3-pointers in both of them. If his 3-point shooting comes around, in combination with his improved defense, rebounding and passing, it could cement his role on the team going forward and it could be Kuzma, not Ingram, who is the real second option.
Last season, Kuzma was NBA Rookie of the Month when the season first started. Despite his strong start, however, it was really in December when he achieved national attention with his 38-point performance in Houston against the Rockets, his 31 points in a Christmas Day game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and 27 points in a game against defending champion Golden State Warriors.
The calendar says it is December again, and the Lakers are hoping that Kuzma takes a huge leap forward like he did last December. He is off to a very good start, and for that effort, Kyle Kuzma is the Lakers’ Player of the Week.
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