Los Angeles Lakers: What will happen to Kyle Kuzma?

NBA Los Angeles Lakers Kyle Kuzma (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
NBA Los Angeles Lakers Kyle Kuzma (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Lakers are back on top of the league this year, but their ultimate fate could be dictated by how they deal with Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma seems to think he’s a star. Getting drafted in one of the league’s glamour markets can have that effect on a young player. We can look to Kristaps Porzingis as a prime example of this reality.

(This is, by no means, a comparison between the on-court ability of these two. Porzingis was a better prospect at the time he was drafted, and has subsequently turned into the better overall player.)

But much like Kuzma, Porzingis was drafted into an unfortunate situation – a young, promising player miscast as his team’s savior, or at the very least a vital, indispensable piece of their rebuilding efforts.

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Porzingis flashed moments of brilliance his rookie year, as he worked the Madison Square Garden crowd into a frenzy with his ferocious blocks and long-range bombs. He was so tantalizing, and for a team whose fans have seemingly been waiting for a young savior since the days of Patrick Ewing, that his star began to rise. Over the next two seasons, he was often all New York Knicks fans had to latch on to for hope as they stumbled to 12th and 11th place finishes, respectively, in a weak Eastern Conference.

The NBA world moves exceedingly fast these days, to the point that the amount of roster turnover and player movement has rendered some teams unrecognizable from year to year. The Los Angeles Lakers, now employing perhaps the best two-man combo in the game, have rampaged to the No. 1 seed in the West roughly halfway through this current campaign, steamrolling any lesser opponents who stand in their way.

But just two-and-a-half short years ago, it wasn’t all smiles in Laker Land. They were coming off a miserable season in which they finished 30 games below .500 and, perhaps most importantly, they were dealing with the sobering reality that Kobe – their favorite son – had officially called it quits. They had hired Magic Johnson – a man with limited if any, front office experience – to run their basketball operations department. His lack of experience certainly didn’t dim the excitement that his hire brought to the fanbase, but we know how that all turned out.

Both the fanbase and the organization were searching for someone to take Kobe’s mantle as the franchise icon and savior who could drag them out of the mud. At the time, the LeBron-to-LA rumors were all over the place but even the possibility of such a free-agent coup would have to wait a year.

Kuzma arrived in LA via the team’s second first-round draft pick (27th overall) that summer. Expectations were certainly low, as they are with most late-first rounders and pretty much all second-rounders. But Kuzma proved his worth early on, posting a 20-6-2 line with good efficiency in just the third game of the season. He continued to flash potential all year, to the tune of 16 points a game with a 45/37/70 slash line.

That’s great production for the 27th pick! For comparison’s sake, Caleb Swanigan was picked right before him and Tony Bradley directly after; right now, just two-and-a-half short years after they were picked, these two are on the fringes of the NBA. But, likely because of his unique situation as a young, promising player on a glamour franchise desperately searching for a savior, Kuzma was propped up as the Next Best Thing in LA, and his off-court profile rose considerably.

There are a lot of different factors that go into off-court popularity but the main driving force is typically a player’s prowess on the floor. As a player in the league, there’s no better way to get noticed than success on the floor (barring a monumental off-court incident or scandal). But there’s still no explanation for Kuzma’s gargantuan Instagram following (4.1 million!!) other than the LA influence. Lauri Markkanen, a fellow 2017 draftee and near-consensus better player, sports a following of just 323,000 (and he plays in Chicago! Not exactly a small, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps town). Obviously this isn’t everything, but it is emblematic of Kuzma’s rapid ascendance.

Alas, he has mostly failed to deliver on the promise he showed during his rookie year. While he posted comparable numbers to his rookie campaign last season, he didn’t have a substantial effect on his team’s place in the standings, as he posted a -1.3 net rating while the Baby Lakers struggled mightily without LeBron.

This season has been even more trying. A foot injury delayed his season debut, which, in retrospect may have been a bad omen for his fit on this team. He often appears lost and out of place on this Lakers roster, like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. In a lot of ways, that’s the perfect summation of his season thus far. We’ve learned over the last decade-and-a-half that LeBron thrives when he’s surrounded by shooters and a rim-running big man. Kuzma doesn’t fit either of those archetypes, which has necessitated a lot of conversation about his future with the Lakers.

But where could he even go? While his standing as a young player who’s produced in his first few years seems like it would be attractive to pretty much every team in the league, his playing style – relatively inefficient gunner without many defensive chops – has been continually phased out of the league over the last several years.

So what are the Lakers’ options? There’s been a lot of talk surrounding a Bogdan Bogdanovic-for-Kuzma swap, but it’s hard to see why the Kings would make that move based on basketball ability alone (Bogdanovic is a restricted free agent at season’s end and will command a hefty raise that the Kings don’t seem to want to pay).

Bogdanovic is a fundamentally better player than Kuzma, able to run the offense in a pinch and threaten teams from long-range, maybe the most important skill in today’s NBA, and one that Kuzma doesn’t consistently possess. Bogdanovic, on the other hand, would be a great fit on this current iteration of the Lakers, as a secondary creator and floor-spacer around LeBron-AD pick-and-rolls.

The Timberwolves could use some additional scoring punch to surround their superstar Karl-Anthony Towns, so maybe they’ll enter the conversation at some point. They could dangle Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, two young, promising defensive players who haven’t come into their own offensively just yet. But, if history is any indication, LeBron isn’t interested in any young, inexperienced rotation players while he’s in pursuit of a title.

San Antonio is intriguing, if only because their current forward rotation includes a lot of Rudy Gay (not a great thing in 2020) and Trey Lyles. Kuzma wouldn’t really help alleviate their main problem – spacing the floor – but he’s a nice piece that could grow alongside Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray, and Derrick White into the next (hopefully) great Spurs team. The Lakers could ask for Bryn Forbes and/or Marco Bellinelli (and probably a pick), two long-range snipers who fit in extremely well around LeBron.

There’s a handful of other teams in various stages of a rebuild (hello Washington, Oklahoma City, and Detroit) who could talk themselves into a young player with some warts who could potentially grow into a member of their new core, but it’s harder to search out both pieces the Lakers would want in return and players who are at Kuzma’s salary level.

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While talent is obviously necessary to succeed in this league, coaching, fit and a variety of other factors outside of the player’s control are of the utmost importance for a young, developing player. Exhibit A: Ben McLemore. I still believe if Kuzma lands in the right situation, with a coaching and development staff who can work to strengthen his weaknesses and a role more befitting of his talent, he can be a pretty good player in this league. We’ll find out in the next month if NBA GMs feel the same way.