Kyle Kuzma isn't a stretch four, he's a switch three
The question is omnipresent at this point: How did this guy go 27th?
Kyle Kuzma had another impact game on Thursday night for the Lakers, scoring 22 on 10-of-17 shooting as Los Angeles narrowly lost to Portland 113-110.
It's not any kind of revelation at this point to note that Kuzma is playing well past what people were projecting for him just a few months ago. He lit up Summer League and already had five 15-plus point games to his name before Thursday night.
His offensive game is real, so real it's borderline baffling to consider what collectively was missed with this guy in pre-draft evaluations, analyses and the like.
Kuzma has an incredibly soft touch in the lane, especially considering his size, whether for baby hooks, runners or push shots. He's adept scoring around the rim and finding ways to finish, even if he's not a terribly explosive above-the-rim type.
He's crafty working in from the perimeter, a better and more confident ballhandler than anticipated who can score off the dribble and penetrate off the slash. He's an incredibly fluid, developed player already, with a lot of nuance in his scoring sense. He's an opportunistic and clever cutter and he can move the ball quite well as a passer.
Then there's his shot, which was probably the most shocking thing he flashed on arrival in the Summer League. Not much of a marskman at Utah, Kuzma has displayed a quick, very solid form and is so far hitting at 33.3 percent, with I think plenty of potential to do even better.
Kuzma's analytic fundamentals appear strong, though eight games only tell you so much. He's registering .139 win shares/48, an 18.1 PER and plus-1.6 box plus-minus, per BasketballReference.
That BPM is dragged down by his defensive numbers, in fact, his offensive box plus-minus is is plus-3.0, defensively he's at minus-1.4.
About that defense.
There's been a lot of talk of Kuzma being a stretch-four, but I don't think that's going to work on defense. I'm not seeing much that suggests he has the strength or, more importantly, instincts to help with rim protection and lane deterrence.
Take this play. Kuzma is the help inside with Brook Lopez out on Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic is about to beat Lopez off the roll, and Kuzma, hugging Noah Vonleh, doesn't react.
To be fair, there's not a ton you could ask Kuzma to do there. He might be 6-9, but he's just not a big enough dude to matter to someone of Nurkic's build.
Here he is occupying the middle again as a four in the lineup with Lopez drawn out to the top of the key. Nurkic rolls, and to Kuzma's credit he gets into position, it's just not of much good against Jusuf, who goes straight over him for a floater.
Now, instead, check out what happens with Julius Randle in playing some small-ball five, Brandon Ingram taking the help assignment inside, and Kuzma left to quarterback around the key.
The quick and lengthy Ingram switches onto Damian Lillard and uses his long arms to snuff out his look down low. (Dame picked up a foul call on a forced reverse layup, but it was a bit generous)
Again, here's Kuzma letting Pat Connaughton go free into the lane on his cut, with Julius Randle recovering to block him (also again, they called a suspect foul).
It's not so much that you have to hide him - I think Kuzma has the footwork, size and length to be a real stopper on the wings. I just don't know that stretch-four is a role that really fits with what he does best. Think of him more as... I dunno, a switch-three. A wing defender, primarily, who can guard up and down the spectrum as needed in a hybrid lineup.
Look at him here when he's switched onto Evan Turner, he has the agility to track him tight from the perimeter to the lane and the length to disrupt his shot not just once, but twice.
Kuzma can be a good, maybe even great, wing defender. That's what makes the pairing in particular with Ingram and Randle so potent. They can interchange to their strengths: Ingram has the length to help cut off airspace inside, Randle has the bulk to slow someone like Nurkic down, and if you're switching you have someone like Kuzma available - who doesn't have so much of either that it really should be his primary defensive assignment, but nonetheless has a little bit of both to where he can manage in a pinch.
When those three have shared the floor as a small-ball frontcourt for the Lakers so far this season, they're plus-22 in 39 minutes, Los Angeles' third-best three-man lineup. (Interestingly and perhaps reinforcing the point, their best is Kuzma and Randle with Josh Hart, a plus-28 in 80 minutes)
Luke Walton will almost certainly keep spotting him defensively inside, at least for a while, and he may adapt a bit to it. I'm skeptical, I think his best destiny lies in the kind of switchable frontcourt rotation he's shared and had success with alongside Randle and Ingram.
But either way the Lakers have a player who can bring modern adaptability to a lineup, who won't be coming off the bench if he keeps playing like he has.
Not bad for 27th.