• Nikola Cuvalo

2019-20 Breakout Player Series: Kyle Kuzma

New York Post

Last season's Lakers were a curious mixture of playmaking and non-shooting; equal parts entertainment and utter tactical frustration. Finishing the year with a disappointing 37-45 record, the young roster around LeBron James was unable to perform at even a playoff-entry level in a gruelling Western Conference. Change was needed, and change indeed arrived in the form of a monster off-season trade for Anthony Davis that necessitated a major roster overhaul. As a result, this year's Lakers look a whole lot different than last year's, with some seriously raised expectations to boot.

In the eye of this sensational #NBATwitter storm lies the Purple and Gold's most cherished young asset, and one of the sole remaining pieces of a prolonged-rebuild that has since been offered the steroids of superstardom: Kyle Kuzma. The 27th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Kuzma averaged 18.7 points per game last season on shooting splits of 46/30/75 (FG%/3PT%/FT%), taking a step back from his long-range accuracy as a rookie (36% from distance in year one) while dialling up his playmaking, free throw shooting, and volume scoring.

Kuzma stands at 6'9" and weighs 220lbs; measurable like those make him an ideal wing/forward combo player, and he has the potential to guard three positions on the floor while contributing as a sweet-shooting floor spacer on the offensive end. The Lakers likely gravitated toward keeping Kuzma because he has shown flashes of playmaking (alongside his financial value), isolation scoring, and white-hot shooting spurts - three things the team will need around their superstar duo.

If Kuzma can grow into a more efficient, calculated, role-abiding offensive player while sharpening his defensive skills, the Lakers will likely have the most dominant front court in the Western Conference, if not the entire league. He has shown a viable shooting stroke, and is capable of scoring at all levels of the floor; on a roster stacked with paint-crowding bigs (Davis; Dwight Howard; and JaVale McGee) and perimeter-oriented snipers (Avery Bradley; Danny Green; Troy Daniels; Quinn Cook; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; and Alex Caruso), his versatility and potential for stardom stand out as ingredients for a season-deciding X-factor.

His weaknesses are not so different from those of most 24-year old NBA younglings on the cusp of stardom: shooting efficiency, along with defensive effort and nuance. While Kuzma may have the physical profile to guard both larger guards and leaner forwards, he has to work on his foot speed and positioning in order to make an impact on the defensive end of the floor. Offensively, he has to work within his role on a LeBron James-led team: stay out of the paint, wait for the kick-out pass in the corners, and occasionally be ready to bail out the offense with some isolation magic on a blown play.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Kuzma has already missed the Lakers first two games of the season; on that front, things don't look so good for a projected breakout. However, he appears to be nearly ready for a return to game action, and is in the best shape of his life after a dedicated offseason. He knows how much the franchise is expecting from him this season, as the team figures to make a deep playoff run; his environment will demand that he becomes the third best player on the roster - a third star to bridge the talent chasm between the LeBrow duo and the rest of the role-playing roster.

The Lakers will not require him to earn an All-Star nod or any All-NBA designations, but they expect a serious jump in the maturity of his game; no longer can Kuzma put up empty-calorie, gunner-esque numbers on middling defense. He will have to adapt to the roster's new hierarchy, and fill the undoubtedly expanded role the franchise has given him. For these reasons, he figures to be the Laker's most improved player; he has the talent, the room and role to expand, and the motivation to do so (i.e. keeping Davis in L.A., winning a 17th franchise title, commanding a huge extension post-rookie contract, etc.)

There is no doubt the Laker's superstar twosome has driven Kuzma's development arc into overdrive. The franchise was recently invigorated by new hopes of contention and glory, and everyone rocking Lakers gear in L.A. knows Kuzma will have a huge part to play in any championship run. Frank Vogel, the new head coach of the Lakers, will undoubtedly instill a defence-first philosophy into Kuzma, having been a defensive specialist for all his years spent coaching in the NBA. That will be important, as Kuzma figures to feature in game-closing lineups alongside James and Davis in the frontcourt, meaning that he will need to be quick and skilled enough to keep up with talented small forwards and agile sharpshooters on the perimeter.

Kyle Kuzma has the juice to one day become an All-Star in this league. While that may not happen his season, I expect him to take a significant step forward, as required by the new circumstances surrounding his team. Look out for slight volume-stat increases in per-game scoring and playmaking, along with substantial gains in shooting efficiency and defensive impact; Kuzma should also be closing games in high-stakes scenarios, and will lead the Lakers in points scored on numerous occasions this season.

2019-20 Statline Prediction: 19.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.3 apg along with 0.7 bpg & 1.1 spg, on shooting splits of 49/37/80 (FG%/3PT%/FT%).

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