Ever since the trade for Anthony Davis, much has been made about Kyle Kuzma being the Los Angeles Lakers‘ third star. The former starter went to the bench in the hopes that he’d develop into a Sixth Man of the Year type player. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really been the case and he’s struggled to make an impact at times.
That said, he’s improved since the Lakers entered the bubble and while he’s not putting up a ton of points, he’s actually making an impact on defense. In the playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Kuzma put up a 94.2 defensive rating, which was second-best on the team behind Alex Caruso. This is a team that has Defensive Player of the Year runner up Anthony Davis on the roster.
He did struggle on offense quite a but everybody knows he’s an effective scorer when he’s hot. However, nobody thought he could play strong defense. He had a chance to talk about his improvements on defense.
“I think, from an individual standpoint, that every series is a chance for me to get better,” Kuzma said Monday. “My main job right now is to just come in, bring energy and defend at a high level. And being able to guard the great guards that Portland has is only going to help me guard the great guards that Houston has, or coming into whoever else we play. It doesn’t matter. It’s all a stepping stone to get better, especially for us. It was huge.
“A lot of people said that we couldn’t guard the 3 and that we didn’t really have dynamic perimeter defense, and we showed people that we did that. Obviously in the bubble play, [Portland] averaged 121 points and they probably averaged around 100 for the last series. It helps.”
Kuzma Is Taking Pride in Defense
The Lakers have been an elite defensive team all season and much of that is thanks to Frank Vogel’s ability to get guys to buy-in. It’s clear that Kuzma is finally buying in.
“I’m just taking pride in defense and trying to help this team try to win games,” Kuzma said. “Everybody makes a big deal out of me trying to be the third option and, to me, our team’s not necessarily built like that. And I think that, for me, my way to make that super impact is trying to be the third-best player.
“That’s from the standpoint of trying to lock guys up, playing with energy because that’s my strength, and just trying to give myself to the team and just trying to play hard. I’ve noticed just trying to do that, it’s really allowed me to flourish. Getting steals, getting blocks, taking the challenge of guarding, CJ, Dame, Melo, Nurkic … just guarding everyone.”
If Kuzma can develop in a true third star for the Lakers, they’ll be really hard to beat. He hasn’t shown the ability to be a consistent difference-maker on both offense and defense so it remains to be seen if he can be that third star.
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Kuzma Gets ‘Pissed’ When He Gets Scored On
One thing that has made Kuzma more effective on the defensive side of the ball is a change in mentality.
“I think before, I’d kind of be a little anxious on defense, worrying about if the guy scores on me,” Kuzma said. “But now, it’s not necessarily that. I really … I don’t care. I don’t care if I get scored on. I’m just gonna keep coming, attacking and trying to get stops. And I think having that mentality has really helped me as a player grow this year, especially on the defensive end.
“I just take it personal. I get pissed when I get scored on. I don’t want to be scored on. That’s just my whole mindset: just trying to be a dog out there and stop guys so that when we get on a break and come home, (I can) have a glass of wine with a win.”
It’s clear Kuzma’s mindset of taking things personally on defense has helped him. Even if the shots don’t start falling for him, his emergence as a strong defender could help the Lakers win a title.
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