LOS ANGELES — His immense value to the Los Angeles Lakers was on display over the weekend, when Kyle Kuzma stepped up to fill a big void and delivered dazzling performances, each more impressive than the last.
He started in place of the injured Anthony Davis (bruised backside) Friday at Dallas and scored a season-high 26 points in a 129-114 win, the Lakers’ seventh straight. Then Kuzma followed that with another high of 36 points Saturday at Oklahoma City, with Davis and LeBron James (flulike symptoms) both out, leading a 125-110 win.
Naturally, Kuzma was asked if his inspired play had anything to do with his name coming up in trade speculation.
“Nah, that’s for y’all to talk about,” Kuzma said Saturday night. “I’ve been through it multiple times and obviously I see it. But it don’t even matter at this point.”
Rajon Rondo joked that with James and Davis both out against the Thunder, “I knew it was going to be about another 54 extra shots and Kuz was going to take 45 of those.”
In those two starts, Kuzma was 24 for 46 from the field, making 52.1% of his shots. He was six for 14 from three-point range, making 42.8%.
“He played great last night,” Rondo said Saturday night. “He’s letting the game come to him. He’s not forcing tough shots. He’s hitting tough shots as well. But that’s what he does and that’s why they kept him here.”
When James and Davis return and Kuzma goes back to his sixth-man role, the question presented to coach Frank Vogel was how real would these current numbers still be.
“I think it’s real,” Vogel said. “Like I said, a lot of it is just he’s been hampered by the injuries and just struggling a little bit to try to find his rhythm. But since he’s been back, since we shut him down for a few games, he’s been playing at a really high level. A couple games where he didn’t really score the ball well, but hopefully this is just another step in that growth into that role, and hopefully he keeps it going.”
Kuzma has dealt with two left ankle injuries this season and an eye injury that forced him to miss games. And at times he has struggled in his role coming off the bench. For the season, Kuzma is averaging 13.2 points in 24.3 minutes.
Vogel was asked if he has talked to Kuzma much to keep the young forward engaged.
“I try not to. He’s a confident guy,” Vogel said. “A lot of people are trying to create sort of an issue, like, ‘What’s going on with Kuz?’ or ‘Why aren’t we getting more out of Kuz?’ and all that stuff. To me, it’s just a matter of time. Everybody just has to be patient, wait, it’s gonna continue to grow. The role’s gonna continue to grow, his comfort level’s gonna continue to grow and you’re gonna see performances like you saw tonight from him.”
Kuzma had another long-range shot at the end of a quarter Saturday. His three-pointer with 2.4 seconds left gave the Lakers a 73-49 halftime lead.
When the Lakers’ 32-point lead was trimmed to 11 in the fourth quarter, Kuzma stepped up again, scoring on an eight-foot shot and a three-pointer to seal the game.
“Ever since I was a kid, playing in open gyms at the YMCA, probably score is 10-10 or 11-11, I’m taking that shot,” Kuzma said. “So it’s something that I just enjoy doing, and I’m confident in myself.”
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Kyle Kuzma