March 1, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Why Kyle Kuzma is thriving in his star-less role for Lakers

There was a choice to be made.

“It all depends what you want in this sport, to be honest,” LeBron James said. “… Do you want to score a bunch of points but sometimes it doesn’t really matter or doesn’t make a difference in winning or losing? Or do you want to be a part of something special where you continue to get better, you continue to make an impact and you have a role on the team where you’re playing for something more than the sum of your individuality?”

Anyone who closely watched Kyle Kuzma’s career with the Lakers couldn’t be sure which direction he’d pick.

In his first two seasons with the Lakers, Kuzma scored — a lot. He was a 17-point-per-game scorer before his 24th birthday on the Lakers — endorsements and fame coming far before any winning.

Left with the Lakers after the team traded the rest of their future for Anthony Davis, it was time for Kuzma to decide.

He’s chosen wisely.

Armed with a new contract, an NBA championship and comfort in his role, Kuzma’s shaped his game around the stars on his team instead of trying to star alongside them. And it’s working.

In the Lakers’ 115-105 win over Memphis on Friday, Kuzma scored 20 points — but it was his 10 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass, that flashed like some of Kuzma’s game day outfits.

“There’s a lot of different ways you can impact the game,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “As he’s grown his offensive rebounding, he’s really gotten comfortable with that aspect of his game and has given us a huge lift — just creating a lot of extra possessions that are helping us win games. So, it’s just a testament to understand that there’s many ways you can impact the game without scoring.”

Friday was his seventh game with 10 or more rebounds this season, all of which have come since Jan. 7. Last season, his first as a player trying to find his way on a contender, Kuzma grabbed double-digit rebounds just three times in the regular season and playoffs.

The switch sounds simple.

“I’m just trying to get the damn ball really,” Kuzma said.

Highlights from the Lakers’ 115-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

But there’s been more to it than that — comfort with the sacrifice required to accept life as a supporting player instead of a featured star. It might not be exactly what Kuzma wants, but it’s also what’s best for the team.

“It’s not an easy buy-in,” James said. ‘Because when you know you’re capable of going out and scoring 20 or you’re capable of putting up high-point games, it shouldn’t be an easy buy-in. It should take some time.”

And Kuzma’s game isn’t done evolving. But there’s been significant progress.

This year, he’s had seven double-doubles, one fewer than Anthony Davis, and third most on the team. Kuzma’s making better than 36% from three and he’s looking at ease with where things are with his game.

“Man, he’s grown. His playmaking has been better, his catch-and-shoot has been better, and his value for our team has grown from even the end of last year to now,” Davis said. “Between the huge plays for us, his effort and his energy is there every night. Rebounding, making the hustle plays. Things that you didn’t see a lot of last year — you saw spurts of it, but now you’re seeing it every game with him.

“He brings that spark for us …He’s made a jump.”

And lately, when he does, he usually comes down with the basketball.

ETC.

The NBA warned Kuzma and LeBron James about flopping on Saturday, the league reported on Twitter.

Kuzma fell backward out of bounds along the baseline with 6:30 left in the fourth quarter when Memphis guard Dillon Brooks drove to the basket. Brooks reverse pivoted after the contact and shot a pull-up jumper that missed. No foul was called.

James drew a foul on Brooks while battling for rebounding position on a missed shot by Anthony Davis with 2:33 left in the second quarter. James fell backward to the court after minimum contact with Brooks while Grizzlies guard Grayson Allen collected the rebound.

TONIGHT

AT DENVER

When: 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet, ESPN; Radio: 710, 1330

Update: The Lakers finished a perfect five-game homestand on Friday, a stretch that started with the Lakers playing a near-perfect second half against Denver on Feb. 4. The Nuggets will look to be much sharper than they were that night, winners of two in a row after a three-game skid. Center Nikola Jokic has been one of the league’s top offensive players and slowing him down will be at the top of the scouting report.