What will Kyle Kuzma’s role be next to Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis?

What will Kuzma's role be next to Beal and Porzingis? originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — Big men doing guard-like things is not the novelty it once was in the NBA, yet even in today’s league, what Kyle Kuzma can do with the ball in his hands sticks out. He has above-average speed and agility for his size at 6-foot-10, and he has both the ball control and court vision to make plays for others.

That has been on display throughout the preseason so far, as Kuzma has made a series of passes either on a full sprint or right after executing a spin move in the lane. It hasn’t necessarily led to assists, but the aggressive approach has kept defenses off-balance and led to open looks for his teammates.

Kuzma thrived in the latter half of last season, after injuries and changes to the roster elevated his offensive role. Over his last 37 games, he averaged 20.6 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 47.1% from the field and 34.9% from three. Compare that to his first 29 games of the season, when he averaged 12.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists while shooting 41.6% overall and 33.1% from deep.

While there were other variables at play, like his adjusting to new surroundings, Kuzma’s efficiency and production improved as his role and, by extension, his shot attempts scaled upward. In the first 29 games, he averaged 11.3 field goal attempts per game and a usage rate of 19.7%. In his final 37 games, he took 16.4 shots per game and his usage rate was 27.8%.

One question for the Wizards entering the 2022-23 season is how Kuzma will co-exist with Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. For a variety of reasons – injuries, rest, etc. – the team has barely gotten a glimpse of that trio in the preseason. It may take some time for them to build chemistry.

Kuzma will have to play off of Beal and Porzingis, who are both high-usage players with long track records as primary scoring options. The key for him may be more of what he’s shown as an assertive playmaker.

That role could be defined as a point forward, or perhaps ‘glue guy,’ though that may not be strong enough given his importance to the team. Maybe ‘super glue guy’ would fit.

“I just play the game of basketball the right way. If the right pass is there and the right play is there, I try to make it nine times out of 10,” Kuzma said.

“That’s kind of just how I’ve been taught to play basketball and that’s what I think is the best way to play basketball, because when you’re sharing it and not being a thirsty-type of player trying to get to the rim or shoot it every time, it leaves the defense guessing a little bit because you can pass. I just like to see my teammates succeed.”

Kuzma’s playmaking stands out statistically, especially for his size. Last season, he was 11th among players 6-foot-9 or taller in assist points created per game (9.6). Beal was the only non-point guard who averaged more than Kuzma did on the Wizards.

Whether it involves passing or not, Kuzma’s decisiveness and mobility could help the Wizards’ ball movement in general. Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. plans to continue tapping into that part of Kuzma’s game and says he has license to take the ball coast-to-coast off a defensive round to initiate the offense.

“He’s shown he can do it at a high level. It’s certainly on the table. There are certain after-timeout plays where we’re going to have him bring the ball up and be a facilitator. But I think he’s at his best in the open floor,” Unseld Jr. said.

The mere willingness to pass and sometimes make the extra pass could be crucial to Kuzma and the Wizards’ success this season. That’s because he’s entering what is essentially a contract year. He’s due to make $13 million for the 2023-24 season, but has a player option. At his current rate, he could opt out to receive a significant raise.

Some players in that position may favor their own shot over setting up others, but that would go against Kuzma’s longstanding approach to the game. He showed in Los Angeles alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis how he can thrive in a role where he is a secondary scoring option.

That, however, was on a championship team and one of those players, James, is an all-time great. The balance here will likely include more shots than he was getting for the Lakers.

The general approach, however, should suit him well and is also appreciated by his teammates.

“That’s one of the things I like the most about him; his ability to create for everybody,” Porzingis said. “He’s big, he sees over defenses and he knows how to pass the ball. He’s a great cutter. I think the way Brad and Kuz [are], they’re unselfish guys. They want to get everybody else involved, everybody else feeling good. That’s something we’ve all got to have in mind as teammates for each other, to build that kind of culture to where a guy is going to cut hard because he knows he might get the ball. If he will be open, he will get the ball.”

In an ideal world, Kuzma will impact the game both as a scorer and playmaker, and those traits will go hand-in-hand to make him an effective offensive player overall. The combination of volume and efficiency he displayed in the latter half of last season is something any team would like to have in their offense.

Kuzma also happens to have a knack for big shots in clutch moments. He won a handful of games for the Wizards last season by getting hot late in the fourth quarter. His barrage of threes in Cleveland and his buzzer-beater in Detroit would be two examples. While he shot 34.1% from three on the year, that number soared to 39.5% in the clutch which is defined by the final five minutes of regulation or overtime when the game is within five points.

The aforementioned speed Kuzma presents can also help him score.

“I just have an advantage on fours. Typically, fours aren’t used to guarding guys of my skillset from the standpoint of being able to play pick-and-roll or grab it off the rim, and have to match up with me attacking closeouts,” he said.

The ceiling for Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma appears to be particularly high on the offensive end. Getting on the same page may take some time, but Kuzma’s wide-ranging skillset as a third option gives Unseld Jr. plenty to work with.

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