Kyle Kuzma's entire career has been filled with widespread consternation about his role. Was he a future star, or even a third-banana to two preexisting ones? Would he ever recapture the shooting magic of his first few months as a Laker? Were periods of demonstrable defensive growth sustainable? Through three years with the Lakers, Kuzma flashed just about every skill an NBA player can have without ever settling into one or two as an identity.
But this season has seen Kuzma fill a somewhat surprising vacancy. No longer burdened with the expectations of being an essential scorer, Kuzma has, in a sense, helped replaced Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee on offense. Despite steadier shooting and defense, Kuzma's standout skill in his fourth season has been offensive rebounding. In fact, he's doing it at a level few players of his ilk can match.
Kuzma is averaging 1.9 offensive rebounds per game this season, tied with Jimmy Butler for the most among all players who do not spend at least 50 percent of their minutes at either power forward or center (using basketball-reference's positional designations). Only Brooklyn guard Bruce Brown has a higher offensive rebounding rate among players within those parameters, which not only makes him one of the most effective offensive rebounding wings in basketball this season, but puts him on par with most centers. On a per-possession basis, Kuzma is pulling in more offensive rebounds than two of the three big men in the Laker rotation: Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol.
That's an important outcome for a Laker team that finished sixth in offensive rebounding rate last season. They've predictably slipped with Howard and McGee gone, but that was an intentional trade-off for the offensive creativity Gasol and Harrell brought. The Lakers don't want Gasol spending possessions near the basket. They want him spacing the floor and orchestrating offense from the high post. In an ideal world, the Lakers would hope for the same for Davis, who rarely plays center during the regular season as a method of preserving his body for the playoffs. The less he's banging with bigs near the basket, the better, and Kuzma has happily taken some of that burden off of his chest.
Plays like that require a toughness Kuzma has embodied this season, but also an improved basketball IQ. Kuzma starts his cut to the basket as soon as he sees Davis twirl on his pivot foot, having learned his teammate's tendencies well enough to expect a turnaround jumper. That gives him a headstart to the basket, which he uses to great effect on this play.
It isn't one that he always needs, though. A significant area of growth for Kuzma has been tracking shots in the air. Four Pistons have inside position on this miss, but Kuzma reads the trajectory of this shot before it even hits the rim. He starts his leftward shuffle while the Pistons casually wait for the ball to drop in their laps.
Punishing laziness has become a specialty of Kuzma's. Sometimes, it's as simple as one player walking while another player runs. Needless to say, Michael Porter Jr. would probably like this one back.
Complacency is a sad truth of rebounding that Kuzma has taken great pleasure in exploiting. If Justin Jackson had been more proactive in jumping after this ball, the Thunder would've gained possession. But he was too slow, and Kuzma, as he so often has this season, came barrelling in and swatted the ball back out.
Young players develop new skills with age, but NBA history tends not to favor players like Kuzma growing in this particular way. He entered the league as a scorer and even reached 18.7 points per game before seeing both his point and minutes totals decline meaningfully since Anthony Davis' arrival. It made sense last season, when the pursuit of a championship conquered all, but former Lakers coach Pat Riley once coined the term "disease of more" to describe the phenomenon of role players wanting more shots, money and attention once that championship had been secured.
On paper, there was a legitimate reason to worry about Kuzma's susceptibility. He hadn't yet signed an extension when the Lakers added Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell, pushing him down the offensive hierarchy and theoretically limiting his leverage and exposure. He eventually got a deal, but one that paid him more like the fifth offensive option he'd become than the third option they once hoped he could be. Plenty of players would sulk over those lost shots and dollars.
But Kuzma steered into the roster the Lakers built around him and turned effort into his role. It hasn't gone unnoticed. "He's been a star in his role," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, "him playing as hard as he does on both ends of the floor. Guys don't always have that ability to play hard like that naturally. You don't have to pull it out of Kuz."
That maturity has led to the best basketball of Kuzma's career despite some of the least impressive numbers he's ever posted. It has so far been a satisfactory compromise. Kuzma's presence on offense has generated chances for everyone else to pad their own stats. It's not the sort of role anyone expected for him, but it's been a critical one. A hole formed organically on the Lakers' roster, and Kuzma rose to fill it. It doesn't need to be any more complicated than that.