Breaking Down Kuzma's Hot Streak
Kyle Kuzma's new skills are leading to big results
What in the world is going on with Kyle Kuzma?
Ack, no, not his outfits. I mean his play on the -
What is that? He has to be sweating buckets under there, right?
That outfit looks like something that should only be worn in private with a predetermined safe word.
Kuzma has been a fascinating character this season (and not just for his sartorial sense). He started the year off by hoovering up rebounds like a traveling vacuum salesman before hitting a lull in November and December. From January on, however, Kuzma has been at another level.
It’s been a tale of three seasons for Kyle:
Despite scoring a monstrous 24 points per game in January, Kuzma is actually shooting less often and less accurately from range. Instead, he’s taking twice as many two-pointers as before, and he’s hitting them much more efficiently.
But can we learn more? Screen, ENHANCE:
Proportionally, he’s still taking a third of his shots at the rim, but he’s shooting a lot more from the short mid-range section (numbers above from Cleaning the Glass). It’s clear from watching games that Kuzma has significantly increased his volume of flip shots, hooks shots (always over his left shoulder), and floaters, to great effect:
76% accuracy at the rim is an elite figure for a big man who’s not subsisting solely on alley-oops and putback dunks, and 51% from the short mid-range is well above average.
Even more impressive? Most of these new shots (like the one above) are of the unassisted variety, meaning Kuzma can take defenders off the dribble and burrow his way to the basket.
In the nine January games, Kuzma has 40 unassisted field goals out of 83 field goals total. In the 33 games he played before that, Kuzma had just 48 unassisted field goals out of 167. Kuzma is generating a lot more offense for himself.
One key to this is his increased rebounding. Kuzma is snagging more than 12 per game in January, which would be fourth in the league (his previous best season was just 6.3 boards per game in his rookie year!). He loves taking the ball coast-to-coast, and coach Wes Unseld Jr. has done an excellent job empowering Kuzma to rip the board and run with it:
Kuzma is surprisingly fast with the rock in the open court. The ability to push it immediately makes it difficult for scrambling defenses to load up in the paint. Although he isn’t particularly shifty with the ball and rarely does more than one change-of-direction, Kuzma is adept at using his size and strength to get to his preferred spots, particularly when he catches a mismatched point guard in transition.
He’s always been an adept off-ball player (playing alongside LeBron James tends to accelerate that education for young players), and he has a knack for cutting into space in a way that makes it hard for teammates to miss him.
Interestingly, the Wizards have used Kuzma at point guard for stretches this season when Dinwiddie is missing, even with Beal on the court. His handle and passing vision are solid for a power forward, but ask a Los Angeles Lakers fan about point Kuz before this season and you’d have been laughed out of the overpriced bar.
His touches per game are up hugely since the new year, rising to 70 touches per game in January from 47 in the months before. For context, that’s sandwiched between superstar point guards Ja Morant at 73 touches and Chris Paul at 67. His time of possession and number of dribbles per possession are much higher, too. Ballhandling-wise, he’s been a whole new player.
Kuzma is turning the ball over a lot more (3.4 times per game in January, almost double his turnovers from the prior months). Growing pains are expected for a player learning a new position and new responsibilities, and the Wiz have clearly decided the tradeoff is worth it.
His passing is fine-to-good for a big forward. He’s shown some ability to hit shooters in their pocket and make some more advanced skip passes. Look at this beautiful touch pass to Harrell after a smart cut into the paint:
Kuzma’s averaging nearly 4 assists per game in January, by far the most of his career and a noticeable uptick for someone who’s had tunnel vision in the past. The stretches at point guard have opened him up to passing opportunities that he didn’t notice before, and you can almost visibly see Kuzma’s mind expanding with the idea that assisting others is good for him, too.
Kuzma has developed into a solid defender. He isn’t quite as locked in as he was during the bubble, when he opened eyes with his commitment to detail and unwavering effort, but he’s more than good enough considering his offensive contributions.
Kuzma doesn’t generate a ton of turnovers, but he loves to dig down on mid-range jump shooters and go for the block from behind:
For most players, this is a risky move that can lead to contact with the shooter, but Kuzma uses his seven-foot wingspan to block shots like this without committing many fouls. One of Kuzma’s strengths is never putting guys on the free-throw line. He’s in the 95th percentile for big men at avoiding fouls.
Kyle is powerful and reasonably quick for his size with solid off-ball awareness. His biggest flaw is giving shooters a little too much space on the perimeter at times, but that’s pretty common for big men.
Advanced defensive metrics are mostly ambivalent on Kuzma’s defense, ranging from slightly negative to slightly positive. Synergy Sports’ tracking data rates him as a well-rounded, above-average defender overall.
Here’s the thing: a lot of this positive change could be sustainable. Kuzma has pulled the rare trick of dramatically increasing his shots while also improving his efficiency. Kyle will miss a floater at some point, but he’s proven that he can handle a large scoring load even without his three-pointer falling.
I’m not sure I love the idea of Kuzma playing point forward in the playoffs, but those reps are giving him valuable passing and ballhandling experience in a way that challenges his current skillset. They have also emboldened him on his coast-to-coast drives, which will remain a useful tool for him in the future.
If Kuzma can be an efficient 20-point scorer, and Bradley Beal continues to shine like the Beal of old, the Wizards offense can be an above-average unit (they’re ninth in the league over the last two weeks in offensive rating, per Cleaning The Glass).
The middle of the East is a bloodbath. The Wizards are 23-21 currently, good for eighth overall. They are re surrounded by similarly-talented teams like Toronto, Charlotte, Boston, and New York. I don’t know if Kuzma’s star turn of late will be enough to push Washington into the playoffs. But I do know that if Kuzma loses his spark, the Wizards will run out of magic.
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