Lakers Best Case/Worst Case: Kyle Kuzma wins Sixth Man of the Year or …

PhxRam

PhxRam

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    PhxRam

LaVar Ball will never admit it, but rather than questioning the bond between his son and Kyle Kuzma, the BBB CEO should have sent the latter a fruit basket. For all the scrutiny Lonzo Ball’s topsy-turvy rookie campaign garnered, that heat would have been 1000 times worse had Kuzma not unexpectedly provided a fun alternate storyline.

Kuzma quickly announced his presence by getting named Summer League Championship MVP, then wasted no time proving he could score against real NBA defenders. An 18.2 PPG November (49.2% FG, 39.0% 3PT) was boosted to 19.5 PPG in December (on 40% 3PT), all the while providing sold help on the glass. Having never shouldered so many minutes against this level of competition, Kuzma collided with the Rookie Wall in January and February but closed out strong after the All-Star break.

By and large, his season was spent hitting buckets so varied, it often felt like he was experimenting with HORSE shots during NBA games.

There were baskets from the perimeter. In isolation. Driving to the rim. Using baseline fadeaways. Posting up. We even saw a running skyhook.

Lakers Best Case/Worst Case: Kyle Kuzma wins Sixth Man of the Year or … This enviable versatility came courtesy of a gym rat mentality and terrific fundamentals. In particular, Kuzma’s footwork was astonishingly good for a rookie. (This skillset should only improve after summer workouts with Kobe Bryant, whose footwork rivaled anybody who ever cashed an NBA check.) Upon concluding his rookie campaign, Kuzma’s point totals placed him among exceptionally strong company. No squinting is required to imagine future seasons averaging 20 or more. Kuzma made scoring look quite easy, even while performing high-degree-of-difficulty moves.

But Kuzma’s first-team All-Rookie season was about more than just precocious scoring. There was the “found money” factor. Nobody — including the Lakers, I imagine — expected this immediate production when he was drafted 27th overall. That’s simply not the norm. “The D’Angelo Russell trade paved with way for Kuzma” is an overstated narrative — he most likely would have been available at pick 28, which the Lakers sent to Utah for picks 30 and 42 — but an arrival even tangentially linked to that deal made Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka look doubly smart, a nice side-benefit for a duo still proving their mettle.

Moreover, there’s the “it” factor. The dynamic, fun personality. The natural charisma. The unflappable confidence. I could go the rest of my life never hearing the phrase “Mamba Mentality” again, but I understand why it’s so frequently tossed around with Kuzma. Among the Lakers’ young core, he possesses the most effortless star power. He’s also unafraid to tap into that part of his psyche. Obviously, Kuzma’s got a loooooooong way to go before Kobe comparisons are about more than attitude, but he was undoubtedly the Lakers’ best rookie. And he is poised to take another step as a sophomore.

Albeit in a totally different atmosphere, with perhaps a totally different role.

Best-case scenario

Sixth Man of the Year.

Should Kuzma come off the bench as widely anticipated, the Lakers should immediately begin pushing this as his goal. No day should pass between October and April without Luke Walton and the Laker brass in his ear about taking home that trophy. By December, the Lakers should have launched a campaign filled with catchy slogans. (Picture #STAYD12, but not lame.) If Jamal Crawford remains unemployed when the season commences, the Lakers should hire him as a 6MOY Whisperer. Hell, force Kuzma to change his number from 0 to 6. There hasn’t been a particularly strong No. 6 since Eddie Jones, anyway.

Let’s beat this horse dead, people!

From day one, 6MOY should be Kuzma’s holy grail. Come June, when the NBA does its cockmammie award show, you will be recognized as the premiere reserve of 2018-19.

It’s not an unrealistic quest. Yes, over the last twenty seasons, only three players under 25 (Ben Gordon, Leandro Barbosa and James Harden) have nabbed this trophy largely reserved for veterans making a noble sacrifice of sorts. But Kuzma still has a lot working in his favor. As a general rule, 6MOY come from playoff teams and, save a catastrophic meltdown, the Lakers will be one. Some pundits have expressed confidence they could win 50-plus games, which would only strengthen Kuzma’s case. Plus, any LeBron team will be a magnet for attention, keeping Kuzma top of mind among voters. In many ways, you couldn’t ask for a better setup for a player capable of putting up fast points. Operating in large chunks against second-unit defenders, whether as the primary 3, 4 or even 5 (?) off the bench, Kuzma could scorch the nets.

But here’s the thing. For Kuzma to actually win Sixth Man of the Year at the ripe, old age of 23 in just his second season, he’ll need to overcome anti-youth bias. Which means offering more than just points.

If Kuzma is in the thick of this race, it likely means, for example, he’s become more of a playmaker. And by “more of a playmaker,” I mean, “somebody who averages more than 2.1 assists over 36 minutes.” Nobody in the rotation from start to finish last season seemed less intent on moving the ball. I don’t suspect this was so much selfishness as youthful tunnel vision, but either way, he’ll need to focus more on helping others get buckets. Moreover, 6MOY honors likely reflect tangible improvement on the defensive end, where Kuzma was often, to put it kindly, lacking. He’s acknowledged deficiencies, so again, I don’t consider this an effort or willingness issue. It’s a matter of experience, awareness, focus and applying his natural tools.

And by building himself into a more complete player, Kuzma increases the likelihood of regularly closing games, a hallmark for any top reserve. Moreover, this inevitably creates more floor time with LeBron, which could be mutually beneficial for both players. Beyond some complimentary skill sets and size, there’s a very specific utility from Kuzma. The kid may not be Kyrie Irving, but he’s a far better pure scorer than any of LeBron’s teammates last season. Perhaps more than any other Laker, he can provide a safety valve for buckets as defenses force somebody other than LeBron to beat them. In return, LeBron will make Kuzma a better, smarter, more effective player through his mere presence, which is a pretty sweet trade-off. Everybody wins.

(And finally, Kuzma continues raising awareness about the water crisis in his hometown Flint, Michigan. Because that’s more important than anything on the court.)

Worst-case scenario

Despite the Lakers’ best efforts to incentivize Sixth Man of the Year glory, Kuzma is insulted by what he considers a demotion. As is the instinct for many young players, he tries to score his way into a preferred role. But rather than make his case, Kuzma exacerbates the situation through forced shots, poor decisions and a generally myopic mindset. The Lakers can get any of those bad habits from Michael Beasley, whose superior experience starts feeling more valuable than previously envisioned. Kuzma doesn’t fall out of the rotation — he’s way too good for that — but does unexpectedly lose some PT here and there. And it bugs him. A lot.

Additional time on the bench is spent envisioning his future in L.A., and Kuzma doesn’t like what he sees. The “LeBron Era” increasingly feels like a hindrance for someone looking to spread his wings after a killer rookie year. Not to mention, demoralizing. Why bother becoming a complete, two-way player if it doesn’t move you higher in the pecking order behind LeBron, Brandon Ingram and “Inevitable High Profile 2019 Free Agent Acquisition X?” As a result, Kuzma is essentially the same player as last season, just less enthusiastic. As great as it is to be part of a winning environment, in certain ways, it’s less personally satisfying for Kuzma, who suspects he won’t reach his fullest potential until after LeBron’s time with the Lakers ends.

In 2021.

At the earliest.

Looking for ways to channel this frustration, Kuzma grows overly consumed with his status as the Lakers’ resident fashionista, a mantle inherited when Jordan Clarkson (who took over for Nick Young, of blessed memory) was dealt to Cleveland. One gets the sense that Kuzma spends at least two to three hours sifting through game-day outfits with a team of personal assistants, a ritual that cuts into his pregame prep. (Or even worse, this is the pregame prep.)

Kuzma, who never met a camera or Instagram opportunity he didn’t like, becomes a little too enamored with the limelight in general. If he can’t get his due as a player, his budding profile as a colorful personality will damn sure be maintained. For every scenario where this produces fun, there will be two where it reflects the distracted dissatisfaction of a young player pondering what life might have been like if the front office just let the young core grow together.

Lakers Best Case/Worst Case: Kyle Kuzma wins Sixth Man of...