Photo Source: NBA.com / Kyle Kuzma attempts a hook shot against the San Antonio Spurs on Oct. 22, 2018.
Kyle Kuzma is starting to solidify himself as the right-hand man to LeBron as the season is progressing. Going into the season, it was uncertain as to who would rise up and compliment LeBron out of the young core of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. Brandon Ingram was a popular answer given his scoring abilities, incredible length and hype after being drafted with the 2nd overall pick by the Lakers in 2016. Lonzo Ball was dubbed a “future star” for the Lakers, receiving the same amount of hype or even more than Brandon Ingram by being selected 2nd overall in the 2017 NBA Draft. Magic Johnson (All-Time Laker great and President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers) told USA Today in the summer of 2017 that “We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day…” in reference to the retired jerseys of Los Angeles Lakers legends hung up in the rafters of Staples Center, including Magic’s jersey among other Laker greats. Despite all of the hype surrounding the former #2 overall picks, Kyle Kuzma is the one that stands out.
Kuzma was drafted by the Lakers with the 27th overall pick in the 2017 Draft; the same draft that the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball with the 2nd pick. Although the fans and media focused more on the star out of UCLA, Kuzma made sure he was given the same amount of respect as his fellow rookie was receiving once the 2017-18 season tipped-off. Kyle Kuzma would go on to average 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting 45% from the field during his rookie year. These numbers weren’t outstanding compared to his fellow teammates Ball and Ingram, but they were enough to open some eyes as no one expected these type of numbers to come out of player picked outside of the lottery. Scottie Pippen, on the other hand, failed to live up to his high expectations as a rookie.
Pippen was selected with the 5th overall pick by the Bulls in the 1987 NBA Draft. Though he was drafted fairly high, he didn’t start a single game for the Bulls in his first season, resulting in averages of 7.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game while shooting 46% from the field. By his 2nd season with the Bulls, he started more than half of the games he played in, increasing his averages to 14.4 points per game along with 6.1 rebounds while shooting a better field goal percentage of 48%. Kyle Kuzma experienced a similar start to his career. He started less than half of the games he played during his rookie season and is now a featured starter as his 2nd season develops. Albeit their situations were somewhat similar, Kuzma blows away Pippen in regards to their first two seasons averages. Kuzma in his first two seasons so far has a combined average of 16.6 points per game, 6.1 rebounds and 46% shooting from the field. Pippen doesn’t come close, averaging 11.2 points per game while grabbing 4.9 rebounds and shooting 46% from the field through his first two seasons. Granted, Scottie Pippen was thrown into the middle of Michael Jordan’s uprising with the Bulls. Jordan during those two years led the league in scoring, putting up a combined 33.8 points per game while taking away from Pippen’s opportunities as an up and coming star. Kuzma, however, is going through a similar scenario. He is playing his second season with arguably the greatest player of all-time in LeBron James who is averaging 28.3 points per game thus far and yet, Kuzma is still finding a way to succeed.
Scottie Pippen went on to become the infamous counterpart to Michael Jordan during their run of six NBA Championships within an 8-year span. Kyle Kuzma can develop into that counterpart for LeBron James for the latter part of James’s career. Despite different skill sets, Kuzma still has the potential to parallel the success Pippen found, by being the wing-man to LeBron. Although Scottie Pippen was a better defender and playmaker than the young Lakers star, Kuzma has the ability to get hot from deep in a way Pippen never could. Pippen’s career average from the three-point line was 32% while Kuzma’s is 35%. This may not seem like a vast gap, but considering Kuzma shoots 5.4 threes per game compared to Pippen’s 2.5 three-point attempts, the gap seems much larger. It’s a plus that Kuzma is only in his 2nd season, giving him the opportunity to blossom into the defender and playmaker that Scottie Pippen eventually turned out to be. They both have similar builds, Pippen standing at 6’8”, weighing 210 pounds and Kuzma at 6’9”, 220 pounds. This type of body will allow Kyle Kuzma to grow into a solid or even elite defender like Scottie Pippen was if he is willing to put in the work over the course of his career.
These comparisons will continue to become more relevant as Kuzma progresses in his career. If LeBron leaves once his player option becomes available in the summer of 2021, it could give Kuzma the opportunity to be the absolute star for the Lakers. That is if the Lakers don’t bring in another star to pair alongside LeBron in the coming summers. “Kuz”, as his teammates call him, could buy into that 2nd star alongside LeBron, he just needs to opportunity, and it looks like the coaching staff is willing to hand him that freedom as this season comes along. Over the last 5 games, Kuzma is averaging 25 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 52% from the field, 38% percent from three and 80% at the free throw line. These are the type of numbers the Lakers are looking for in the 2nd star of the LeBron-led Lakers.