What we want from players in today’s NBA, more than anything else, is versatility. Big men matter more if they can make defenses nervous from 25 feet away. Point guards matter more if they can defend their own position. Wings matter more if they can switch screens. Lockdown artists matter more—and, increasingly, only—if they develop a corner 3. The game is too fast and is evolving too quickly for role definitions to remain sedentary; the positional revolution has made polymathy a must, and woe betide the specialists, those who have found a way in this short life to get good at one thing.
And yet, we must always return to the words of the philosopher:
Millions of things can matter in an NBA game, but nothing matters more than the ability to repeatedly and efficiently put the ball in the basket. And holy hell, did Kyle Kuzma ever do that against the Pistons on Wednesday.
But there’s always a drive to do more. During his interview with ESPN entering the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ matchup with Detroit, L.A. coach Luke Walton said he’d like to see his 23-year-old forward contribute in other areas to help close out a big home win over the Pistons: to grab some rebounds, to dig in on defense, and to facilitate for his teammates, rather than just looking for his own offense. That sounds about right: a young coach trying to encourage a talented young player to expand his game for the good of the team—especially with Kuzma having tallied no assists, blocks, or steals, and just two boards to that point.
It did sound a little odd, though, coming on the heels of Kuzma busting up the Detroit defense to the tune of 22 third-quarter points, part of a career-high 41 in 29 minutes of work. Kuzma’s evening ended after that explosion, as Walton gave four of his five starters the fourth quarter off and let his reserves finish a 113-100 win. (Kuzma’s replacement, Michael Beasley, scored 15 points in the fourth, which makes you think maybe the sophomore might’ve had a chance at being the league’s first 50-point scorer in nearly a month had Walton let him cook; instead, he got an arcane sliver of Laker history all to himself.)
Walton had a bunch of dudes capable of grabbing rebounds and making extra passes Wednesday. (Shouts out to Lonzo Ball and the unshackled Brandon Ingram.) But with LeBron James still sidelined by the groin injury that he suffered Christmas Day, he had only one who could do this:
Kuzma scored 22 of the Lakers’ 72 points in the paint Wednesday, the team’s highest total in a non-overtime game this season. He dusted Blake Griffin—a fellow big, physical, gifted scorer who has earned praise in recent years for diversifying his game.
Two nights after returning from a lower back contusion with a yikes-y 4-for-20 shooting performance in a win over Dallas, Kuzma shot 16-for-24 against the overmatched Pistons. He drilled five of his 10 3-point attempts, roasting Detroit in such a natural rhythm that he looked for all the world like a man made to do the one thing that matters most in his chosen profession. That takes work, though.
“He was in the gym [the day after his poor performance in Dallas] and he got up 500 shots,” Walton told reporters after Wednesday’s win. “He was working on his stroke and working on his form from what he noticed in the breakdown of his jumper, trying to get it better.”
Even so, Walton couldn’t help but poke at the decidedly less-stuffed areas of Kuzma’s stat sheet: “He had zero assists, which he and I have talked about,” he said, adding, “It felt like [the ball] was skipping around out there until it hit Kuz’s hand, and then it was going up every time.”
Wednesday’s 41-2-0-0-0 line represented an extreme example of how heavily Kuzma’s production tilts in one direction. Of the 96 NBA players 6-foot-9 or taller to qualify for this season’s minutes-per-game leaderboard, Kuzma ranks 88th in rebound rate. He sits in the bottom quarter of the league among bigs in block and steal percentage, according to Cleaning the Glass. He dishes assists on a higher share of the Lakers’ possessions than he commits turnovers, an improvement over his rookie season, but not by much.
There are other things Kuzma can do—he’s taken steps forward as a perimeter defender, for example—but he’s not the kind of all-around player that Walton clearly wants him to become. But at the risk of internet-basketball-writing heresy … like, who cares? He’s averaging 18.8 points per game on an above-average effective field goal percentage despite struggling from the 3-point arc this season—he’s shooting just 30.6 percent from deep after shooting 36.6 percent as a rookie, with nights like Wednesday offering some hope that those numbers will tick north as the season continues. The Lakers score nearly eight more points per 100 possessions with him on the court and have scored about as efficiently in minutes when Kuzma’s on the floor sans LeBron as when they share it.
At 23 years old, Kuzma is already the Lakers’ second-best scoring threat. Even if that’s all he is, and it’s still too early to write that story, that’s not nothing. It’s a lot, in fact, which is why Kuzma—making just $1.7 million in the second season of a rookie contract that will keep him under team control through at least 2022—is such an interesting piece for the Lakers.
“I didn’t know he had 41 points in three quarters,” Ingram told reporters Wednesday. “But that’s kind of what he does, scoring the basketball. He always has a knack for finding the basketball and putting it inside the rim and that’s good for our team.”
Ingram’s and Ball’s top-of-the-draft pedigree frequently brings their names to the forefront of trade speculation for a team that’s clearly aiming for the biggest target on the market. But nights like Wednesday make you think that it’s the player taken 27th overall in 2017—the one whose game might not check every box, but sure checks a damn big one—who could be L.A.’s most sought-after piece ... and maybe the one Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka, and Co. would be most loath to sell off.