Lakers vs. Suns: How Kyle Kuzma is contributing without making shots in first-round series

There isn’t a duller job in basketball than standing in the corner. Proper floor-spacing is a necessity, but one few players are enthused about providing. Most NBA players spent the first two decades or so of their lives as the best player on every team they played for. They’re used to making plays, not standing in the right place so somebody else can. The job is often thankless. The occasional shot aside, too many wings turn into spectators when their star teammates are creating elsewhere on the floor. 

But Kyle Kuzma is no spectator. With Dennis Schroder lost after a failed drive, Kuzma took it upon himself to find the right play even when he didn’t have the ball. 

It’s such a simple moment, but it so perfectly represents the player Kuzma has grown into. The first two years of his career were spent largely as an empty-calorie scorer. He’d never met a shot he didn’t want to take, making him exactly the sort of player that typically loathes standing in the corner and watching teammates dribble. Yet here he is, standing in the corner with a desperate teammate looking in his direction, and his instinct is to say “no, don’t pass it to me, Marc Gasol is open.”

Schroder passed him the ball anyway, but Kuzma adjusted. He and Gasol have developed such chemistry this season that Kuzma even lobbied for the veteran big man to get more minutes, so naturally, once Kuzma got him the ball, Gasol tossed it back to him on the move. That led to an easy lob for Anthony Davis and fitting statistical recognition for Kuzma. The basketball gods rewarded him with an assist on a play in which he didn’t even want to touch the ball.

It’s the story of Kuzma’s season, and in particular, this series against Phoenix. Kuzma averaged only 12.9 points per game in his fourth season, a far cry from the 18.7 he posted in his sophomore campaign. Those raw numbers have been far worse this postseason, in which he’s down to a measly 3.3 points per game on 3-of-18 shooting. Yet the Lakers won his 24 minutes by 14 points on Thursday because Kuzma is no longer the forlorn spacer eagerly anticipating rare chances to rack up points. He doesn’t need to score at all to contribute to the Lakers because almost everything he does is generating points for somebody else. 

That is especially visible on the offensive glass. LeBron James ended a 9-0 Phoenix run in the fourth quarter that cut the Laker lead to 10 with under 11 minutes remaining, but it was Kuzma’s tap out of his missed free throw that truly demoralized the Suns by turning a two-point possession into a five-point possession. 

This possession that Kuzma saved with three offensive rebounds? It led to a LeBron layup. 

The outcomes aren’t always going to be positive, and he’s not always going to actually make the play. Kuzma had no business making this chase-down block, but he came very, very close to doing so. 

When you play every possession as hard and as intelligently as Kuzma does now, more often than not, you’re going to positively impact your team even if it doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. This didn’t count as a steal for Kuzma, but it probably should have. 

Eventually, the Lakers are going to need Kuzma to start hitting shots. There isn’t a player in basketball that could survive on 17 percent shooting. But Kuzma himself doesn’t need to make shots in order to do all of the other things that have made him so valuable this season and in this series. 

That’s a rarer thing than you’d think in a basketball world filled with players who grew up as stars. There’s a reason so many teams throughout the years have tried to open games with post-ups for their centers. There is a correlation for most players between offensive involvement and defensive effort. Players don’t like doing the little things when their team doesn’t let them do the big thing.

But Kuzma has fully separated those elements of his game. He defends whether or not he scores. He rebounds whether or not he scores. He hustles whether or not he scores. And if that first clip is any indication? He doesn’t really mind how dull his job can get so long as points are going on the board for the Lakers.

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