During the second half of the Lakers’ game Wednesday, Kyle Kuzma put both his hands in the air to signal he was open behind the three-point arc. Nothing. He sped past his defender into the lane, a precise cut through the New Orleans defense. Invisible.
Frustrated because his teammates were not getting him the ball, Kuzma made sure he wouldn’t be ignored.
At the next timeout, he hustled to the basketball, just to touch it, shooting a quick 10-foot baseline jumper as his teammates moved toward the bench.
With Anthony Davis a permanent mismatch for the Pelicans in his New Orleans return, with LeBron James being, well, LeBron James, Kuzma had to wait for his turn to make a difference.
There’s just one problem.
“Are you a patient person?” he was asked.
“No. I’m not patient at all,” Kuzma said after the Lakers’ 114-110 win. “That’s why sometimes it’s hard.”
This is the challenge staring down Kuzma in his third NBA season — finding ways to make a difference with fewer opportunities to score. It was something he thought about as soon as the Lakers acquired Davis. It was something he focused on during his time this summer with Team USA.
Rebounding and defense, he told himself, would be ways for him to matter without being the offensive-minded player he was in his first two seasons in the league — a time when he built a name for himself as one of the NBA’s most promising young scorers, averaging 18.7 points a game last season.
Transitioning from a top option to a supporting role hasn’t gone smoothly. He’s scored 10 or fewer points seven times in the 14 games he’s played this season. And that’s as many as he had in 70 games the last season.
“It’s tough sometimes, but you just have to be positive, have an even-keeled mind-set. But that’s easier said than done,” Kuzma said. “It’s something I’ve got to kind of figure out. But it isn’t anything I can’t handle.”
The Lakers were trailing by 15 points in the third quarter when Kuzma rushed to grab the ball, then he exited that timeout and sparked the rally that eventually led to their ninth consecutive win.
He made a tough step-back jumper to cut the lead to 13. After a New Orleans bucket, he splashed home a three-pointer. Another Kuzma three gave the Lakers their first tie since the opening minutes. And then, in the final minute, Kuzma put his team ahead for good, making another three-point shot off a dish from James.
The second-half flurry came after a first half of invisibility, his two shots hardly putting a stamp on the game one way or the other. He waited and eventually finished with 16 points on eight shots.
It’s emblematic of his place on the team. The Lakers obviously added a superstar in Davis, a six-time All-Star and three-time NBA All-Defensive player in seven season with New Orleans. They signed veteran free agents, brought in better perimeter shooters. All of it has eaten away Kuzma’s minutes and his ability to influence a game the way he knows best — by scoring.
“That’s just part of sacrifice and trying to be on a winning team,” he said. “Obviously, it’s hard sometimes when you’re a young player wanting to continue to establish yourself and see you measure up across the league. In certain situations, you have the opportunities to just play. It’s hard sometimes — naturally.
“But I’ve got good vets around me, keep things in perspective. I have an opportunity to win a ring in my third year. Sometimes, I just have to catch myself, realize.”
Here’s an example of learning patience: Kuzma said he’s the type of person who stares at the clock on the microwave, watching the numbers count down to zero. And he gets so antsy for the countdown to be done, he stops the microwave early.
“I usually stop it at three seconds,” Kuzma said with a laugh. “I just can’t wait anymore.”
You could see it pregame, when Kuzma sat on the end of the Lakers’ bench waiting for teammates to exit the court. He bounced a ball under his legs while cameras snapped photos at every dribble. He looked out onto the court — one that he very easily could’ve been playing on as a primary scoring option had the Davis trade talks failed. Maybe part of him was envious of former teammate Brandon Ingram, a player who gets to shoot as much as he wants as the Pelicans’ top offensive option, a player who is making a case for an All-Star berth.
Kuzma, though, would begin Wednesday on the bench. He’d sit there and eventually be on the court watching the Lakers’ offense grind to a crawl as the team continued to feed the ball to Davis in the post on what felt like every possession.
Eventually, the Lakers found the best version of themselves, one where they’re a team with two megastars with solid role players instead of the times when they played like two megastars burdened with three other players on the floor.
Finding ways to get Kuzma good shots, to keep him engaged and maximize his skills, that’s all ongoing, and there’s no cheating that.
“It’s just time,” Kuzma said. “Especially in society, everyone wants instant gratification. Everybody wants everything now. There’s a reason why we play 82 games. It’s just a process. It’s cliche but it’s true, especially for me.”
The clock is ticking, Kuzma’s adjustment period to his new role is getting shorter and shorter by the game — even by the possession.
But if there is one guy in the Lakers’ locker room who would like to see this all get figured out, say, three seconds early, it’s Kuzma.