Let's set the scene. It's Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Heat, the former being a juggernaut with major expectations and the latter a surprising contender. In the first quarter, Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma blows by Jimmy Butler on his way to the basket. He rams into the big-bodied Kelly Olynyk, and he has a decision to make: kick it out to a waiting (and open!) Rajon Rondo on the perimeter, or dump it off to a converging LeBron James or Anthony Davis, both waiting in the post.
Kuzma attempts the second choice, but blindly fires it behind his back and sails it right over the two stars' heads. LeBron stares at him and walks away, leaving Kuzma on the ground to think about what he's done.
The scene perfectly encapsulates Kuzma's fledgling career: flashes of potential marred by frightening amounts of mediocrity. Drafted 27th overall by the Nets in 2017, the Utah product was sent with Brook Lopez to Los Angeles in the trade for D'Angelo Russell. He immediately made an impact for the Lakers with an average of 16.1 points per game while shooting a respectable 36.6% from behind the arc. Though he was a 22-year-old rookie, there was hope that he could become a future star.
During his second season, Kuzma upped his scoring input to almost 19 points per game. He was putting the ball in the basket more, but in his first year in the starting rotation, there were some red flags. The main concern was his 3-point percentage, as it dropped to just over 30%. To vault himself to star status, Kuzma had to figure out his jumpshot and how to score with efficiency.
Unfortunately, this most recent season was arguably his worst. With Anthony Davis joining LeBron James as the offensive focal points in Los Angeles, Kuzma was expected to become the third star, the off-ball specialist. He proceeded to average 12.8 points per game, and his field goal percentage dipped to 43.6%. What gives?
A major contributing factor to Kuzma's reduced impact was the arrival of Davis. With Davis and LeBron slotting in at both forward positions, Kuzma was relegated to the bench. Head coach Frank Vogel hoped that he would be able to take on the sixth man role, but this produced a rushed approach by Kuzma. He took difficult mid-range shots, heaved moving 3-pointers nightly, and more often than not, he just couldn't seem to find a rhythm.
It's possible that Los Angeles is ready to pull the plug on Kuzma, possibly adding him in a trade for a proven veteran. LeBron isn't getting any younger, and the Lakers have made win-now moves this offseason to give a shot at another ring. However, Kuzma likely isn't on the move this year; the Lakers have already addressed their biggest needs with Dennis Schröder, Wesley Matthews, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell.
There's no doubt that Kuzma has been frustrating for Lakers fans and NBA followers alike. After such a dynamic rookie season, people were predicting for him to become a 20-point scorer every night by his second year. Despite a disappointing career arc so far, the Lakers have no reason to give up on him yet. If he continues to struggle, his minutes will continue to fade. If he can prove to be effective off the bench, that's just another dangerous piece for Frank Vogel to utilize.
It isn't too late for Kyle Kuzma, but time is certainly ticking for him to make a lasting impact.