Did drafting Kuzma save the Lakers?
How drafting Kyle Kuzma may have saved the Lakers’ season and Magic Johnson’s free agent plan for summer 2018
Considering the unexpected early struggles by forward Brandon Ingram, drafting Utah forward Kyle Kuzma with the #27 pick this summer may have saved the Lakers’ season and their free agent plan for summer 2018.
Any other year, Ingram’s slow and disappointing start would have been devastating, especially since the Lakers had counted on him to be their go-to scorer and closer and the prospective superstar to attract elite free agents. While his upside may still be that of a superstar, Ingram at this point doesn’t appear to be ready to deliver anything near the 20 points per game the Lakers had hoped or to be the clutch player to give the ball to close out games.
It’s not a secret Magic Johnson has a grand plan to create enough cap space for the Lakers to sign two max-contract free agents next summer. He’s been doing his best to “speak it into existence” like LaVar Ball did for Lonzo being drafted by the Lakers but Magic’s plan depends on his talented young team taking a big step forward and winning enough games to convince two elite free agents the Lakers can be a championship contender with them aboard.
The last thing Magic and the Lakers needed right now was for one of two young prospects they were heavily counting on to deliver a winning season and attract free agents to stumble badly out of the gate rather than taking his game to the next level. Brandon Ingram’s poor preseason has not only been a factor in the team losing 4 of their 5 preseason games but has also potentially put the season’s success and team’s summer 2018 free agent plan at risk.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the season opener as Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers other first round pick at #27, parlayed scintillating summer league and training camp performances to earn him kudos as the “steal of the draft.” Mark Jackson called him “a starting NBA small forward” who can do it all. Lakers head coach Luke Walton said that the idea of Kyle Kuzma starting is “on the table” and “we’re going to find a way to keep him on the court.”
Meanwhile, opposing teams’ general managers are “kicking themselves over letting Kuzma fall to the Lakers” and Kuzmania has temporarily replaced Lonzomania as hype-drunk Lakers fans pipe dream of making the playoffs. Even the ominous thump of Ingram’s struggles hasn’t dimmed the exuberant zeal of the die hard Lakers fans who are inundating blogs and forums with posts proposing how and why the Lakers need to start Kyle Kuzma right now.
So how good is Kyle Kuzma and can he be the 20-points per game scorer and end-of-game closer this season the Lakers hoped Brandon Ingram would be? While we won’t know the answer until the regular season starts, everything seems to indicate that Kuzma is the real deal. He’s exactly what he appears to be, the prototype modern NBA forward who can shoot the 3 and attack the rim on offense and switch and guard multiple positions on defense.
Having played 3 years at Utah, Kyle Kuzma has so far made the transition to the NBA look easy. He averaged 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game in 7 summer league games while shooting 51.4% from the field and 48.0% from deep. His 30-point and 10-rebound performance in the summer league championship game won MVP honors as he led the Lakers to the summer league championship without Lonzo Ball.
Kuzma has continued his sensational play in the preseason, averaging 19.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 5 preseason games while shooting 56.3% from the field and 29.6% from deep. Coming off the bench, Kyle has been the team’s leading scorer in 4 of the 5 games played and has shown an impressive array of offensive weapons and the defensive ability to guard bigger players in the post as well as keeping in front of guards and wings.
At 22-years old, does Kuzma have as high an upside as 20-year old Ingram? That’s another question that will take time to answer. Kuzma doesn’t have Ingram’s freakish length but right now he has the offensive game and scorer mentality to give the Lakers the 20 points per game they need to win games. While Luke seems committed at this point to having Kyle come off the bench, that’s likely to change if Kuzma continues to shine and Ingram to struggle.
What’s ironic is the Lakers went into the summer hyping rookie Lonzo Ball and sophomore Brandon Ingram as the franchise’s new dynamic duo but will be entering the fall with rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma the hot names. That’s the kind of summer it’s been for the Lakers. While Ingram’s bumbling start was like a sucker punch to the gut and a dose of reality to Lakers fans, Kuzma’s emergence only ignited and threw more fire to the hype and hopes.
What’s all this mean to the Lakers? Assuming Brandon Ingram just needs time to grow into his body and develop, drafting Kyle Kuzma may have given the Lakers a third young player with superstar potential. Whether the Lakers will be willing to give Ingram time to mature or will look to use him to move Luol Deng’s contract and/or trade for a star like DeMarcus Cousins remains to be seen. At the least, Kuzma’s emergence trumps Ingram’s struggles.
Drafting Kyle Kuzma has not only turned a potential disastrous slow start by Brandon Ingram into what hopefully will end up being just a speedbump but also given the Lakers another valuable asset to help them enjoy a breakout season and be big winners in next summer’s NBA free agent marketplace.
Bottom line, drafting Kyle Kuzma with the #27 pick this summer may have saved the Lakers’ season and their free agent plan for summer 2018.