When entering the NBA, forward Kyle Kuzma likely never would’ve imagined that he’d be the center of attention so often. The 27th overall pick out of Utah, Kuzma found himself under the bright lights of a Los Angeles Lakers. His immediate impact made him the talk of the town until the next offseason, when LeBron James reshaped the Lakers. Though he won a championship in L.A., Kuzma’s best all-around season was his first as a member of the Washington Wizards.
In his fifth season, Kuzma averaged roughly 17 points per game on decent efficiency as a full-time starter for the Wizards. Though his scoring output remained largely the same, Kuzma looked reinvigorated upon joining his new team. He attacked the glass relentlessly, posting 8.5 boards per game including 24 double-doubles and his first career triple-double in a close win vs. Brooklyn.
More importantly than anything, Kuzma didn’t appear to have glaring bad habits. He was a willing and improved passer who moved the ball freely on a team without a true floor general leading the way. His mentality and enhanced skill were essential to keeping the Wizards’ offense moving through injury trouble, several trades and the absence of the team’s star, Bradley Beal.
By this stage of his career, Kuzma is a valuable scoring threat and glue guy who can bind his team. Playing with his heart on his sleeve, Kuzma is the type of player to balance vocal leadership with leading by example for less experienced teammates.
Now 27, it would take something drastic for him to reach All-Star status or an All-Defensive team. So what’s the next step in his otherwise successful career?
Kuzma would be an instant Sixth Man of the Year candidate for the Wizards.
Shifting to the bench checks off several boxes for both Kuzma and the Wizards. First and foremost, he’ll get plenty of shots against lesser coverage playing in the second unit. Going up against backups in early-game scenarios, Kuzma can show off his impressive scoring ability as an A- perimeter shooter and finisher, per talent grades by Basketball Index.
This would also ensure that there’s a reliable player through which the offense can run when Washington’s starters rest. Otherwise, this team is going to get a healthy dose of Delon Wright and Rui Hachimura trying to create shots for themselves and others when the first unit subs out.
Kuzma took strides as a facilitator in his first year with the Wizards, averaging a career-high 3.5 assists per game. It appeared like Kuzma began to realize the gravity of his own on-court presence, using his positioning and scoring pedigree to the advantage of others. He’s not going to transform into a point forward overnight, but the Flint, MI native helped set up some fantastic shots for his teammates. Per BBall Index, he ranked in the 99th percentile for Passing Creation Quality last season, meaning his passes produced excellent looks for their recipient.
Arguably the most important factor of this move to the bench is Washington’s roster construction, which will force a talented forward to the bench no matter what. For a team building around Beal and Kristaps Porzingis at center, keeping versatile defenders on the floor is fundamental. That’s not to say Kuzma isn’t a solid defender, but defense is, at least in theory, Hachimura’s calling card and Deni Avdija truly hit his stride on both sides of the floor as the starting small forward.
In the second unit, Kuzma would have players all around him who complement his game in one way or another. The aforementioned Wright is a solid combo guard who will help create some easier looks for Kuz while second-year wing Corey Kispert spaces the floor, veteran Will Barton does the dirty work and center Daniel Gafford holds down the paint. Washington is sneakily deep with talent, so this shift in the lineup could be the difference in reaching the Playoffs.
Forwards as talented as Kyle Kuzma don’t fall off trees, and they’re rare to see filling that Sixth Man role. It might be an ego check at first, but it could ultimately result in a winning context that benefits the entire team.
Between his ability to piece together a lineup, scoring upside and theoretical fit with the second unit, the Sixth Man of the Year trophy would be firmly in sight during Kuzma’s sixth season.