The Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets are tied with 4.3 seconds left. LeBron James is inbounding the basketball on the right side of the court. James throws it to Anthony Davis posting up on the right elbow. James drops down to set a screen for Kyle Kuzma, who swoops past Davis to receive the handoff and takes a fading three-pointer from the wing with Bol Bol contesting… and splash.
The Lakers win 124-121 and Kuzmania continues to take over at Disney World.
The Lakers have struggled in Orlando, FL so far as their play has been stagnant, shooting dismal, defense off, and offense — at some points — nonexistent. It has been surprising to see them come out flat in multiple games in the restart.
But the only consistency the Lakers have found is that of Kuzma.
Before the 2019-20 NBA season, Kuzma was deemed as the third scoring option behind James and Davis. However, he was inconsistent and his play was impaired by various injuries. Finally healthy and in shape, Kuzma came to Orlando with a mission: become the most important player behind James and Davis.
After the seeding games, Kuzma has been exactly that.
Kuzma ditched the blonde hair dye and daily Instagram posts and his play in the bubble has been social media worthy. He has averaged 15.4 points on 46.3 percent shooting from the field and a team-high 44.4 percent from the three-point line. This is surprising from a player who seemed lost at times before the coronavirus (COVID-19) forced the season to be suspended for nearly five months.
Kuzma has been oozing with confidence: running with a hop in his step looking to make plays, gliding towards the basket determined to score, skipping through defenses dribbling the basketball high, and draining threes when it counts.
Kuzma has been the brightest player on the Lakers.
Lakers fans all knew James would dominate like James and Davis would dominate like Davis, but Kuzma dropping 20-plus points in two out of the three wins is unexpected — especially since he only scored over 20 six times in 63 games prior.
The offensive productivity has been outstanding with Kuzma.
With no pressure from fans at Staples Center or on the road, the bubble has seemed to benefit Kuzma, who at times seemed like the best player on the court for the Lakers. What has been even more shocking is his defensive effort.
Kuzma has excelled at shifting his feet as fast as one can say ‘Kuz,’ staying in front of the ball handler and using his length to disrupt shots. At times during the season, he was bouncy on his feet and struggled to cover man-to-man. During the restart, his footwork and defensive fundamentals have improved substantially.
In addition, his activity on the defensive end is what has made him clearly the team’s best wing defender, alongside Davis. According to NBA.com, opponents are shooting only 43.5 percent from the field with Kuzma as the primary defender.
In the restart opener, Kuzma was glued on Kawhi Leonard and forced him into uncomfortable basketball — even turning him and cutting him off on multiple possessions. Leonard seemed to be on edge with Kuzma on him and looked to get Danny Green to defend him. When Michael Porter Jr. caught fire early with 12 points, Kuzma was called upon to contain him. He got deep into his stance, locked in, and stuck on Porter to allow only four points for the rest of the game.
It is safe to say Kuzma has been extremely focused on the other end, filling the role as a possible 3-and-D player for the Lakers. Through all the struggles and up-and-down play in the bubble, Kuzma has blossomed into the player fans all expected him to be and why he is the most important player behind James and Davis.
With Kuzma’s contributions, the team’s chances at No. 17 are brighter than ever.