NBA agents are getting smarter and smarter. When a draft prospect does something really well, answers critics with stellar play, or has a freakish metric in some combine test, the player’s agent generally advises the player to wrap it up and leave the scouts wanting more. Frank Jackson, the Freshman from Duke University was one such instance, after testing exceptionally in the shuttle run and vertical leaps.
That should fully explain why Kyle Kuzma played only one 5v5 scrimmage game and sat out the second. Kuzma, a prospect who projects as a stretch 4 but shot only 32% from behind the arc last season at Utah, went 4-5 from the 3-point line and 8-10 overall. When your client is able to answer his critics in a small sample size like that, you get him the hell out of there before he has a chance to come back to Earth.
Kuzma is a 6’9” Power Forward who played three years at Utah. Some draft boards have Kuzma going 44th overall to the Knicks, while several others have him undrafted. Surely, Kuzma’s play at the combine helped his stock, but is that sample size fool’s gold?
The NBA draft combine can be very helpful in showing the aggregate growth of a player. Prospects can sometimes develop their game throughout a college season, but maintain a reputation relating to a flaw they came into the season with. On the other hand, if a player gets hot or has a little run in that sample, it’s dangerous to put too much stock into that as well.
Kuzma displayed a pretty fluid shooting stroke all season in Utah, but his footwork and mechanics had some variables which yielded inconsistent results.
At the combine, Kuzma got a ton of his shots to drop. His mechanics looked better, but he seemed only about half-way there. They especially reverted when he shot on the move or off-the-dribble, as they did in college. It’s important to note, Kuzma’s confidence and upper body are both assets to his jumper.
A few other things that stood out about his combine outing were his tendencies to be vocal on defense and his penchant for slashing to the rim. Kuzma is good around the basket with either hand too, not Hernangomez level good, but good nonetheless.
Normally, I’m all about X’s and O’s, but I did pick up on some other interesting stuff during Kuzma’s combine game. I really enjoyed seeing the leadership and team-first qualities from Kuzma considering the fact that all of his teammates (and opponents) are in competition with one another for roster spots. Sure this is your team for 40 minutes, but after that, money, careers, and dreams are all on the line. Kuzma huddled up his team after plays, was the first off the bench most times, and celebrated in his teammate’s success like winning the game was extremely important to him.
The concerns about Kuzma’s defense, however, were not exactly muffled by his play in the combine scrimmage. Kuzma is not a rim protector. His shuttle run and sprint times were pretty good, showing that he has agility in his lanky frame, but his vertical leaps were average at best (27” standing, 34” max leap). Kuzma was confused at times on defense in college and his combine play kind of validated those concerns.
One of Kuzma’s biggest strengths comes with an asterisk. Always a dynamic passer in college, coach Larry Krystkowiak had to keep Kuzma’s play-making on a short leash due to his high-risk, high-reward decision making. In his final year at Utah, Kuzma’s turnover percentage improved to 12% from 17% the previous year and coach Krystkowiak typically had Kuzma inbound the ball after of timeouts or out-of-bounds plays. Kuzma is undeniably a highly skilled passer, as long as he doesn’t get too risky.
Another asterisk-clad area of Kuzma’s game is his transition play. At times, Kuzma looks like a lesser version of Ben Simmons. In the open floor, Kuzma can push the ball with speed and maintain his dribble better than a player of his size typically does.
In closed quarters, Kuzma’s handle is a bit too high off the ground and he’s more vulnerable in traffic.
Kuzma brought in nine rebounds per game in his Junior year at Utah, a perceived strength, but his lack of physicality inside on both ends of the floor suggests that his rebounding numbers are inflated comparative to the NBA game. While he does possess an ability to track the ball off the rim and seems commonly in the right place at the right time, the stronger and quicker NBA competition will likely stifle his efforts on the boards.
While some are high on Kuzma after his combine showing, I’m more inclined to believe his habits over a single scrimmage game. Kuzma is not yet an elite shooter and isn’t particularly adept at creating his own shot. I love his transition play and his passing ability, but I’m not sure it’s special enough to translate in the NBA, especially given his inconsistency handling the ball. Kuzma’s story seems common nowadays; a big with potential (and he certainly does have potential) to stretch the floor, thrive in transition, and pass, but struggles on the defensive end and is inconsistent in nearly all of his assets. Passing big men are rare and wonderful creatures, particularly helpful in the triangle offense, but the Knicks kind of have plenty of those. Kuzma’s ceiling is fairly high, but his floor is dangerously low and I have to believe more appealing prospects will still be available. If he can put it all together, Kuzma would be a fun player to watch, but I would predict that if the Knicks did select Kuzma, he would see a lot more of White Plains than the big city.