With LeBron James watching, Kyle Kuzma shows why he’s still a game-changer for Lakers

SAN FRANCISCO — LeBron James was on the Lakers’ bench a wearing black coat when Kyle Kuzma hammered a third-quarter dunk over Juan Toscano-Anderson on Thursday night. Anthony Davis was nearby, having spilled into the stands moments before to prevent a loose ball from going out of bounds.

The duo watched the throwdown from afar, then celebrated with teammates as Kuzma put emphasis on his turnaround performance in a 116-86 win over the Warriors.

Kuzma stepped up in the absence of James, who missed the contest with a groin injury. After failing to deliver consistent results when asked to be a primary scoring option for much of this season, the 24-year-old scored 18 points and helped build a lead big enough for Davis to rest the entire fourth quarter.

“Just being able to have the opportunity to play-make, facilitate (without James), it allows me to have the ball more,” Kuzma told Sporting News. “It’s something I need to take advantage of.”

Los Angeles needs Kuzma’s contributions so desperately because of its dearth of alternative bucket-getters behind James and Davis. Kuzma’s fellow bench players haven’t shown the capacity to go inferno quite like him — his 15 games with 25 or more points since entering the league are more than any other Lakers reserve over that span.

But for much of the season, Kuzma has been unable to shoulder a substantial load. His shortcomings are especially pronounced when he isn’t sharing the court with James. Entering Thursday night, he was shooting 40.1 percent from the field in his minutes without James, while shooting 46.4 percent from the field with James on the floor.

The recent signing of Markieff Morris, who played alongside Kuzma for 19 minutes Thursday, could ease the dynamic moving forward.

Before Los Angeles added Morris late last week, Kuzma had been required to fulfill inside duties alongside Davis or Dwight Howard whenever James took a breather. His most common lineup combination sans James has been with Davis, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo — a group in which no one outside of Davis stands above 6-5. 

Morris, listed at 6-8, will allow Kuzma more time around the perimeter, Lakers coach Frank Vogel told reporters. On Thursday night, Morris’ presence let Kuzma be involved in a wider variety of offensive sets, from ballhandling scenarios beginning at the top of the arc with a live dribble to baseline post-ups.

“It just allows me to be in that (distributor role) more, have the ball in my hands, attack,” Kuzma said. “Not just be a pick-and-pop, spot-up type of player.”

The Lakers would obviously get a huge boost if their fortified rotation contributes to the end of Kuzma’s funk. He has posted career-lows in almost every statistical category this year. Games like Thursday, though, offer reminders of the game-changing scoring weapon he can be when everything is right.

Los Angeles seems optimistic Kuzma will become a more regular threat before the start of the postseason.

Vogel spoke in a nonchalant tone about how Kuzma has looked without James, seemingly unconcerned with the rash of clunkers that preceded the dominant showing against Golden State. He characterized Kuzma’s inefficiency as a product of adjusting to offensive scheme and role more than deeper faults.

“Not really, no,” Vogel said when asked if there were specific improvements Kuzma needed to make. “Just keep bringing energy like he has for us in the past and doing what he does best, which is score the basketball, and continue to develop within our defensive scheme.”

Kuzma certainly brought a spark Thursday. In addition to his dunk over Toscano-Anderson, he consistently attacked the rim with neat spin moves and finishes through contact.

The Warriors, of course, are an opponent many teams have found false positives against, their inability to defend often letting flawed units thrive. That perhaps limits what can be reasonably taken away from Kuzma’s production against them (though he also excelled a week ago against the Celtics).

Even so, the Lakers head back home satisfied with what they see as an encouraging step toward getting peak Kuzma back.

“We’ve been (trying to) get him into more scoring positions and get him to be more comfortable in his role,” Vogel said. “He was terrific tonight.”

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