There's a certain responsibility that comes with youth on a veteran team. The majority of the Los Angeles Lakers have static skill-sets. They are who they are after lengthy careers, and can, therefore, offer no meaningful in-season improvement. With the trade deadline and transaction period long passed, internal growth is the only tool teams have left as they attempt to patch their weaknesses before the playoffs begin.
Kyle Kuzma, the only Laker rotation player under the age of 26 and the one with the least NBA experience aside from Alex Caruso, has, at best, stagnated this season. He hasn't improved as a 3-point shooter as the team likely hoped he would in a supporting role next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, nor has he added any of the supplementary ball-handling skills that a third-scorer and bench-unit leader might need like high-level passing or any degree of pick-and-roll mastery. In some ways, he's regressed. His shot-selection includes more long-2's and fewer attempts at the rim than ever before.
The Lakers made a huge bet on Kuzma's development by keeping him out of the Davis deal and then doubled down on that bet by keeping him at the deadline. The player they already had wasn't good enough to contribute meaningfully to a contender. The player they thought he could become offered the sort of internal boost older teams don't usually get. The Lakers are getting that boost right now, but not in the way they expected. Since arriving in the Orlando bubble, Kuzma has looked like an entirely new man on defense.
The standard, statistically speaking, was remarkably low. Quinn Cook is the only player to have spent the entire season on the team and post a worse Defensive Box Plus-Minus, and ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks him 60th at his position. Synergy Sports places him in the 39th percentile leaguewide defensively but playing on the NBA's third-ranked defense juices those numbers to an extent. Anthony Davis covers up a lot of mistakes.
But Kuzma hasn't needed the help in the bubble. Opponents are shooting only 43.5 percent from the field against him in Orlando, per NBA.com, and many of the ones that are going in have done so through no fault of his own. What else could he have done to Chris Paul on this switch?
The jump has been the result of both improved fundamentals and superior effort. One of Kuzma's greatest weaknesses defensively had been his footwork. Look at the way he bounces on the balls of his feet in this isolation situation from March. It compromises his balance, slows his reflexes and makes his movements entirely too predictable.
Compare that to how he looked against the Clippers last week. He doesn't bounce, he shuffles, maintaining both proper balance and a full range of motion. He doesn't struggle to change directions or move laterally. It's textbook man-to-man defense.
Proper footwork, when paired with enough effort and his inherent physical gifts, is lethal. Watch him use every inch of his 7-foot wingspan to torture Reggie Jackson on this drive.
It's a stark contrast to the energy Kuzma played with at times during the initial season. His effort waxed and waned. Teams often caught him with those long arms tucked into his side, only offering a perfunctory swipe after it was too late.
But this fully realized version of Kuzma defensively did what no Laker had all season long: he held his own against Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was so bothered by Kuzma's presence that the Clippers ran a screen to try to switch Danny Green—Kawhi's former teammate and an All-Defense alum—onto him. There are few greater signs of respect in basketball. As if to hammer home what the longer Kuzma had done to him for much of the game, Leonard gracefully nailed a 3-pointer in Green's face.
The shots Kuzma altered were the story against the Clippers. The shots he deterred were what mattered against the Raptors. Toronto's ball-handlers often sought him out as an easy mark... and then abandoned drives when they realized he had no intention of allowing them.
The overall level of activity is positively jarring compared to his pre-pandemic self. Kyle Kuzma isn't exactly known for flying into the lane to break up lob passes.
Even when he loses, he stays with the play and makes a difference. James Harden beat him off of the dribble, but Kuzma never gave up on the play and winds up with the block.
In their wildest dreams, the Lakers couldn't have imagined Kuzma improving this much over the course of what is still technically a single season. Apparently, he used his four months off productively, and that changes quite a bit for the Lakers entering the playoffs.
It's no secret that the Lakers have struggled to replace Avery Bradley in their starting lineup. The Kentavious Caldwell-Pope version has been outscored across nearly 300 minutes this season, and as much attention as its offensive deficiencies have drawn, the defense has struggled just as much, allowing 112.4 points per 100 possessions.
Kuzma offers possible solutions on both fronts. He'll never replace Bradley as a point-of-attack defender (nobody could), but slotting him into the JaVale McGee role in the starting five offers a compromise between size and offensive skill. It improves spacing while giving the Lakers another perimeter defender rather than a second, redundant rim-protector. It makes the Lakers surprisingly switchable, at least on the ball. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso can both punch above their weight class. Davis can guard nearly anyone below his. Kuzma struggles with quicker guards, but broadly speaking, there is a universe in which this version of him can guard multiple positions and offer the Lakers, who have played conservative defense for most of the season, a different look on that end of the floor.
It gives the Lakers the upside their older players couldn't. A week ago, the Lakers entered the restart as perhaps the Western Conference's best team, but one devoting quite a few minutes to a wing that didn't shoot or defend particularly well. One of those boxes has officially been checked, and while consistency has never been his greatest trait, the other is in play whenever he steps on the floor. It gives the Lakers a chance at the third banana they've been searching for all season.