Lakers: Kyle Kuzma Is Even More Essential with Boogie’s Injury

When DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Los Angeles Lakers for a veteran’s minimum, the initial reaction from many was more lukewarm or “Ehhh.” He was a 29-year-old center coming off a season in which he played just 30 games due to recovery from an Achilles rupture and only eight of Golden State’s 22 playoff contests because of a quad injury.

However, when news came out last week that “Boogie” tore his ACL during practice, the Lakers’ championship aspirations were put into question all of a sudden. Funny how that works.

His loss is no-doubt a significant one, regardless of how you initially viewed his signing. Remember, this is an All-NBA level talent. One who was regarded as the best center in basketball not too long ago. But his injuries+role on the Warriors watered down the rather impressive numbers he put up last year.

In 25.7 minutes-per-game last season, the 29-year-old posted averages of 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 1.3 assists on 48% shooting from the field (which would have been the 2nd-best of his career). Stretch that out to 36 minutes, and they increase to 22.8 points, 11.5 rebounds, five assists, and a career-best 2.1 blocks — numbers right around his career averages, if not better.

Boogie was expected to fill an essential role with the team, particularly because he was one of just two centers with JaVale McGee in the side. But with him now gone, that leaves McGee and whomever the team may eventually snap up (Dwight Howard?) to serve as the lone centers.

But the Lakers must seriously ask themselves, whether they really need to use a roster spot on a big man or not. When Dwight Howard is the best available option, it means your choices aren’t great. Why not give added responsibility to Kyle Kuzma, who is definitely better than all the alternatives out there?

Yes, he’s not exactly a center, but with the league moving to positionless small-ball, why not run out smaller lineups more often? Besides, he has experience playing the five if Anthony Davis is firm in his stance of wanting to stick to power forward.

The 24-year-old followed up his impressive rookie campaign with a sophomore season that was better and worse in different respects.

He upped his scoring and passing numbers from 16.1 points to 18.1 points, and 1.8 assists to 2.5 assists, respectively, while increasing his field goal percentage by 0.6 percent. In addition, his net rating improved (although it was still negative), as did his assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio.

On the flip side, Kuzma’s overall efficiency dropped. His effective field goal and true shooting percentages dipped, while his three-point accuracy went over six percent in the wrong direction after being a respectable marksman two seasons ago.

So if you balance everything out, maybe he stagnated a bit, but there’s a reason the Lakers wanted to hold onto him in the Anthony Davis trade talks. He’s a young, talented offensive player with a great work ethic and mentality with the potential to be a perfect fit alongside Davis and LeBron James.

Yet, since the trade, it’s as if we’ve forgotten just how good Kuzma is, and can be.

He is a gifted scorer who is now undoubtedly the third-best player on the team, meaning his presence and development become that much more critical to the side. The 24-year-old’s play will have a significant say in just how successful the Lakers will be because if he can’t improve, it limits the team’s ceiling.

He has the talent and skill to be an excellent 20+ point-per-game third wheel while showing signs of improved playmaking ability. And with the Kobe Bryant-esque “dawg” in him, it’s easy to see him achieve this.

Beyond Kuzma’s talent, however, is his fit beside the Lakers’ star duo that makes him so intriguing and promising. Although the former Ute can put the ball on the floor and get a bucket whenever he needs to, you can make an argument that he’s most effective when scurrying around off-ball.

Kuzma has the makeup to be a great slasher and has proven it. Not to mention, he’s shown the ability to be a dangerous shooter (although not too much this past season), both of which make him a rather perfect fit with James and Davis. He can space the floor for them while making cuts to the basket when the defenses key in on the duo.

And if head coach Frank Vogel does decide to lean more towards small-ball, it will give Kuzma more opportunities on the court, allowing the youngster to spare James and Davis from a heavy workload, even though his defense may be exposed.

But, with his aforementioned “Mamba Mentality,” who’s to say that he can’t improve his subpar defense? He’s shown flashes in the past; now it’s all about finding the consistency. And training with Team USA under Greg Popovich will do wonders to his all-around game, and prepare him even more for an off-ball role.

Kuzma isn’t a superstar or star quite yet, but when you have a duo as excellent as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, you don’t need him to be. His scoring ability alone makes the trio a scary one.

Besides, if you compare him to other third options across the league (Tobias Harris/Al Horford, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Rudy Gobert, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris, Jaylen Brown/Gordon Hayward, Eric Bledsoe), he stacks up fine. They aren’t stars either, and if they are (Horford and Hayward), it’s most likely that their best days are behind them.

Thus, Kuz’s progress is key because if he can be better or on par with these guys, it gives the Lakers a significant advantage because of how good their top-two options are, making things much easier for the role players.

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Featured Image via Flick/Smashdown Sports News

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