Kuzma, the last survivor

"If we want the ring, we need Kuzma to be our third best player," LeBron said. The forward has woken up in the worst moment of the Lakers.


Among the doubts of the Lakers, Kyle Kuzma appears. The forward has been slow to awaken, but in the bubble he is developing his full potential and beginning to be the player that the Angelenos wanted when they got him after being selected at number 27 in the 2017 draft by the Brooklyn Nets. Those in purple and gold then got rid of D'Angello Russell and Timofey Mozgov to take over Kuzma and Brook López. The intention was to get the point guard out of the way to make room for Lonzo Ball, who assumed ownership of the team without competition. Today, Russell is on the Wolves, and Lonzo on the Pelicans alongside Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart, while Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. have also left Los Angeles.

Kuzma is the only survivor of that horde of young players who had to fill the gap of Kobe Bryant and start a new era. The rest, they were falling little by little and that new golden age that promised so much has become the greatest crisis in the history of the franchise, which will play the playoffs for the first time since 2013. And Kuzma, the last survivor, will be the only one of his generation companions who will experience it with the team. And the only one who is in a contending team, no matter how much right now he is swimming in a sea of doubts that are difficult to understand and does not remember the team that in March beat the Pelicans, Sixers, Bucks and Clippers consecutively, just before a defeat against the Nets and a hiatus they have always seen as detrimental to their interests.

It certainly appears to have been. The inaugural win over the Clippers was a mere mirage. Davis was gradually diluted, LeBron sounded the alarms with new problems in the groin and has not finished starting, and the Lakers do not make a triple. In fact, they are the worst team in the bubble in shooting percentage of three, Danny Green and company have stopped making free shots, JR Smith fell out of the rotation almost before starting, and Waiters microwave He combines well-resolved attacks with poor defenses that do not help Frank Vogel's defensive system, one of the best in the competition. All this has caused doubts to begin to arise in the face of the ring, so that, it must be said, there are no clear favorites. Neither Clippers nor Bucks convince, as some Raptors do who are not favorites but could well sneak into the party if we take into account the unknown of playing a seven-game series without a field advantage. Or the Celtics, who are also performing very well. Of course, better than some Lakers who, if they win, would match them in rings.

Right now, all of that is a distant prospect, despite the playoffs starting on August 17. But what is clear is that among all the quagmire in which the Lakers are, Kyle Kuzma is the light in the dark. Of course, it is not going to be the determining factor in a playoff series, but it can be the differential. Especially to decide a game like the one last morning, when he went to 25 points and endorsed the triple win against the Nuggets, which he left shivering and with only four hundredths that went down the drain. In theory (and in practice) Kuzma is not going to be the point man to win the ring. But his presence and his improvement in certain aspects of the game can be essential for the future of the team. Above all, as the team is.

His place in the game scheme

"If we want to win the ring, we need Kuzma to be our third best player." These are the words of LeBron James, that omnipotent and omnipresent being who is facing his great opportunity to win another ring and find his definitive place in history. The King knows it and that is why he has been the standard bearer for the resumption, as well as the one in charge of leading his own. And he is aware, as it cannot be otherwise, that Kuzma can be important for the achievement of a championship more open than ever and without a clear favorite. And his words, very well directed, are intended to enhance the role that his partner is playing with more and more regularity and assiduity, especially in the matches that have been held in the bubble.

The hardest thing for Kuzma has been finding his place in the team's game scheme. What Luke Walton did not achieve appears to have been achieved by Vogel, and, at last, he seems to know what his role is and how to perform it. His versatility to play either forward or power forward seemed an advantage at first, but it became a problem coinciding with Brandon Ingram and LeBron himself. The change in position of the latter has freed up spaces for Kuzma, who has only started nine games this year, for 68 and 37 of the last two seasons. Starting from the bench has freed Kuzma from responsibility, who is not in the position of being one of the youngsters leading the team and is more relaxed with that role assumed by Davis and LeBron.

Kuzma will never be asked to score 30 points per game, but he will find a regularity in scoring that he has never had and that has improved in recent games. Before the break he averaged 12.5 points with just 29% in triples, and now he is at 15.5 with 44.4%. Against the Nuggets he has matched his third best score of the season with 25 points and a spectacular shooting series: 11 of 16, with 3 of 5 in triples, including the winner. Kuzma is going to be asked to score the free shots, not to get in the way of LeBron in the making and just do the right things and make good decisions on the pitch, something he has sinned in the past. And to defend. Above all to defend. Something in which he has progressed enormously thanks to the orders of Vogel and the insistence of LeBron, who always demands the maximum from his people.

He was already seen against the Clippers before the break and it is becoming evident now. Kuzma helps on the rebound, can defend the post and has improved in one-on-one. He has good hands, runs when he has to and is the team's third offensive reference with 12.8 points per game (after Davis and LeBron), reaching a maximum of 36 against the Thunder on January 11. And all playing 25 minutes per game, his minimum in the last two seasons. Bradley's absence from Disney will cause him to have more defensive responsibilities, and he works as a starter and substitute (he has started from the beginning in two of the seven games held in the bubble). Against the Clippers, in the opening game, he went to 16 + 7, with a +12 with him on the court. Against Denver it was given to +16.

It is early to know if Kuzma will continue with the consistency that he has never had and will definitely become the third man of these Lakers, but his latest performances invite optimism. As much as the numbers vary, it must be borne in mind that he plays less than before and has less prominence in attack, but he is more effective and has found his place in an ultra-demanding defensive system like Vogel's. At the age of 25, he has the world at his feet and a promising career ahead of him, also being the last survivor of a project that could be and was not. And now, in his third year as a professional, he has the opportunity to show his full potential and help the Lakers alongside El Rey. Of course, within the doubts generated by the Angelenos, the good work of Kuzma is excellent news. His ceiling is still not clear, but his role gains importance and places him as someone who can be, we will see, differential. For now, there it is, standing out. Now if the Lakers want to win the ring, they need to wake up. And they know it.

Photos from as.com
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