Kuzma emerging as Lakers’ closer!

How rookie Kyle Kuzma has seized control of Brandon Ingram’s role as the Lakers’ go-to scorer and end-of-game closer

A funny thing happened on the way to the Lakers’ regular season opener. Unheralded rookie Kyle Kuzma seized control of highly touted sophomore Brandon Ingram’s role as the Lakers’ go-to scorer and end-of-game closer.

We’ve been told all summer to expect great things from Brandon Ingram. Magic Johnson proclaimed him to be “untouchable” and anointed him as the Lakers’ player who’ll have the ball in his hands and be counted upon to create a shot for himself or a teammate to close out games. We’ve heard over and over how hard Brandon has been working to add muscle and strength to his skinny frame and improve his overall shooting mechanics and stroke.

Unfortunately, the weight of expectations and pressure to be something he is either not ready for or capable of have caused Ingram to stumble badly out of the gate, averaging just 8.0 points in 24.3 minutes per game on horrid 26.7% shooting from the field and 12.5% beyond the arc. Even worse, Ingram fails the eye test as he just lacks the speed, quickness, and first step to get by his defender and the confidence to be the team’s leading scorer and closer.

Meanwhile, unheralded rookie forward Kyle Kuzma continued to prove he’s “the steal of the draft” by following his sensational summer league stint with an equally impressive preseason performance, averaging 19.5 points in 27.3 minutes per game on torrid 62.0% shooting from the field and 39.1% beyond the arc. The 27th pick in this summer’s NBA draft, Kuzma’s 19.5 points per game led the Lakers and ranked 5th overall in the NBA for preseason.

Even more impressive was how Kuzma took over Ingram’s closer role in last night’s Lakers’ game to seal the team’s first preseason win over the hapless Sacramento Kings. In an incredible clutch performance reminiscent of Kobe, Kyle scored or assisted on every Lakers basket made in the last 5 minutes of the game, including an amazing spinning layup off the glass with 1 second left on the 24-second clock against a tough defender to seal the victory.

The reality is there is no player on the Lakers roster who has the ability Kyle Kuzma has to create a shot at every level. He has the speed, quickness, and length to attack the rim, the ability to pull up or shoot a midrange floater, and the quick release and range to rain treys from well beyond the 3-point line. Kyle Kuzma is the only player on the Lakers’ roster with the physical skillet and the alpha dog mentality to be the team’s primary scorer and closer.

Offensively, Kuzma reminds me a lot of a young Carmelo Anthony, a smooth, polished big-time scorer who can get his shot at will anywhere on the court. The difference is Kyle also has a lot of Lamar Odom in him, a natural power forward who can handle, distribute, and shoot the ball like a 3 but defend and rebound like a 4. Last night, Kyle Kuzma did a superb job playing small ball center and defending Kings’ centers Labissiere and Cauley-Stein.

Two things have become increasingly clear as the Lakers prepare to start the regular season. First, the Lakers have found their go-to scorer and closer of the future in Kyle Kuzma, which is a huge development considering Ingram’s early struggles. Second, Luke Walton needs to find a way to start Kyle Kuzma alongside Lonzo Ball to take advantage of their chemistry and give the team’s starting lineup the big-time scorer they need to get games off to a good start.

With only one more preseason game remaining, Luke Walton needs to make a big decision. Does he double down on the status quo and start Ingram and Randle and bring Kuzma off the bench but bring him in to close games? Does he use last night’s game as a reason to start Kuzma at the 4 and bring Randle off the bench as 6th man? Or does he make the smart move and start Kuzma at the 3 and take the pressure off Ingram by bringing him off the bench?

While you can build a valid argument to support all three options, it’s obvious the Lakers need to start Kyle Kuzma or risk falling behind early in games like they did most of last year because of their starting lineup’s lack of firepower. The Lakers’ starters have been outscored by the bench every preseason game. Luke needs to remember what happened last year when the Lakers had to come from behind in almost every game due to slow starts by the starters.

The other key reason Luke needs to start Kuzma is to take advantage of the great chemistry Lonzo and Kyle developed in summer league. Unlike last night when Kuzma went long periods without touching the ball, Lonzo will make sure to consistently get Kyle the kinds of open shots to lead the team. Leaving Kuzma’s firepower on the bench for a struggling Ingram when the starters desperately need a big-time scorer would be a misguided move.

I understand starting Kuzma and moving Ingram to the bench is a tough decision for Luke but it’s one that should be made before the season starts. Like Steve Kerr’s decision to start Harrison Barnes and move Andre Iguodala to the bench, this is the kind of franchise-transforming move the Lakers need. Whether he starts or not, Kuzma has already seized control of Ingram’s role as their go-to scorer and end-of-game closer. It’s just silly not to start him.