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Is Kyle Kuzma the Real Deal?

The Lakers’ other rookie has lit up summer league and preseason competition. Can he have this much success when the games start to matter?

Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Has a late-first-round draft pick ever been hyped more before playing a regular-season game than Kyle Kuzma? Drafted no. 27 this June, Kuzma went on to win MVP of the title game at the Las Vegas summer league. In September, Magic Johnson called him “the steal of the draft.” Now he’s averaging 19.5 points through four preseason games and Lakers fans are chanting “KUUUUZ” at Staples Center every chance they get. The Lakers subreddit even dubbed him “King Kuzma.” The rookie forward looks like a major steal, and the rest of the NBA knows it.

NBA Preview 2017

“We’re kicking ourselves,” a front-office executive told me. “We hoped he’d fall farther to us. He’s a complete player.” They’re not alone. A trainer said Kuzma “perfectly” fits the model for today’s stretch 4, while noting the Lakers would be “crazy” not to start him over fourth-year power forward Julius Randle. An executive of a team that passed on the junior from Utah said that Kuzma’s quick improvement in such a short amount of time is an aberration. The 6-foot-9 forward’s skills were clear, but no one could’ve expected him to be this good this soon. Not Kuzma. Not the Lakers. Not Kuzma’s mom. Not the most biased Lakers fan on earth. Not Lonzo Ball.

“In college he wasn’t that good, to be honest. I don’t even remember him when we played him,” Ball said in September. “Now I’m happy he’s on my team.” The Lakers are happy too. The rest of the league, meanwhile, is forced to face its missed opportunity. You’d expect some skepticism from NBA executives regarding Kuzma’s production, but everyone I contacted thought his skills will transfer to the real games. The question is just how good he ends up becoming.

Kuzma is a high-IQ player who does an excellent job of cutting off-ball, and he’s made himself quite available in the Lakers’ motion-based offense. This makes him an ideal fit next to Lonzo, who rewards players who work to get open.

Ambidextrous finishing at the rim is an overlooked trait. It can be the difference between getting your shot altered and cleanly released. The rookie was able to seamlessly score using his left hand in the baseline cut above. Then, on the dive from the top of the key, he’s off-balanced but can contort his body to put the ball up before a shot blocker rotates over. We see this from Kuzma in a number of different situations, including when he’s driving a closeout or leading a fast break.

NBA floor spacing has helped. Instead of driving only to be met by a center zoning in the paint, he’s seeing open lanes that weren’t available at Utah. But Kuzma is attacking with confidence and conviction on a much higher level than what he showed in college. Though he was very good at finishing with either hand in college, he has tightened his handle, especially with his left hand. His footwork has been cleaned up too. His first step looks quicker, and spin moves look smoother. Having athleticism is nice, but fundamentals are the key to unlocking a higher level of play.

NBA personnel I spoke with all feel those traits are going to translate. I feel the same way. Including the NBA combine, summer league, and four preseason games, Kuzma is shooting (47.4) percent on (78) 3-point attempts. That rate is unsustainable; it’s safe to say Kuzma will not be the greatest shooter in league history. But it also feels fair to say that he’s better than his college numbers indicated.

He had good shooting mechanics, but in three seasons at Utah he shot only 30.2 percent from 3 and 63.3 percent from the line. He was also notoriously streaky. Over the first 12 games of his junior season, he shot 19.4 percent from 3, while closing the year at 41.7 percent over his final 17 games. As a sophomore, he hit just 14.7 percent of 3s through 23 games, before hitting 47.1 percent over the final 13. It’s possible we’re just riding a high and the bottom will drop out sometime in the near future.

With that said, Kuzma’s form is more consistent. He’s hopping into his shots more often rather than stepping into it, and he’s landing balanced on both feet. There are noticeable adjustments at work. “The college 3 you can kind of shoot that like a free throw if you want to,” Kuzma said in Las Vegas. “Being that deep, I gotta really have to focus on getting my legs into it and just the mechanics of my shot, so by doing so I’m more efficient.”

Kuzma is also hitting unbalanced shots off screens and off the bounce, which he struggled with in college. He’s balancing himself midair, regardless of where his feet are when he lifts off. When he’s not scoring, he’s making the right play as a passer:

In college, Kuzma took too many risks, telegraphing passes into tight spaces. But so far with the Lakers, both in summer league and preseason, he is making better decisions. Lonzo’s influence is evident. (Hi, Coach Nick!)

That’s a check for almost every offensive box already. We’ve seen the jumper, the nifty at-rim finishes, the ambidextrous hook shots that’d make Magic Johnson proud, the complementary cuts, and the athletic dunks. Kuzma resembles players like Lamar Odom, Rashard Lewis, and Antawn Jamison while also showing some flashes as a go-to scorer.

Here he is draining a pull-up 3 over the reach of Juancho Hernangomez:

Here he is blowing by the defender, walking the tightrope on the baseline, then exploding for a reverse dunk:

It’ll be a new challenge going forward for Kuzma to score one-on-one against high-level defenders, but for now he’ll at least create a mismatch problem for defenses. NBA defenses are regularly switching screens, which means the Lakers could develop Kuzma into a player who can overpower smaller defenders or speed by bigger ones.

The defender Kuzma beat for the baseline dunk is Tyler Lydon, who went three picks ahead of Kuzma in this year’s draft and was also ranked highly on the Lakers’ draft board, according to multiple league sources.

Lakers assistant general manager Jesse Buss told the Lakers’ team website that Kuzma was ranked “much higher than 27th on our board” and he was the “highest-ranked college prospect we’ve gotten outside the lottery.” It’s easy to play the role of soothsayer when a player is excelling, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Kuzma was no. 2 or no. 27 on the Lakers’ draft board. He’s theirs. And now other teams are left wondering what they missed. “The draft is all about upside, so teams make the same mistake every time. [They’d rather take projects like] OG Anunoby than a seasoned player like Kuzma,” an assistant coach texted me. “Another thing teams miss on all the time is work ethic. Kuzma’s work ethic is second to none.”

Kuzma’s attitude keeps popping up no matter who you talk to. “He loves competing. He really does,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said earlier this month. “That’s just how he plays the game, it’s how he practices, and how he was playing pickup in the summer time. He’s thirsty to learn. He’s always asking coaches and veteran players what he can do better.”

Even as the hype machine kicks into overdrive about Kuzma, how much playing time he’ll receive once the regular season rolls around is an open question. Brook Lopez and Brandon Ingram will get heavy frontcourt minutes. Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng, and Corey Brewer are veterans who probably wouldn’t be happy plastered to the bench. Julius Randle is still the starter, while Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac showed flashes last season. There are only so many minutes to go around, so someone will be forced to get the short end of the stick.

Kuzma still needs to get significantly stronger to defend larger players, and his perimeter defense must improve. It’ll be interesting to track whether Kuzma gets his developmental minutes in the NBA, or if he plays a big-minutes role in the G-League. Kuzma is making Walton’s decision a hard one, but it’s a good problem for a Lakers team looking to make a steady climb back into the spotlight.