Los Angeles Lakers: Is Kyle Kuzma Better Than Lonzo Ball?
All NBA watchers know there's no such thing as tanking. But if tanking were indeed a thing -- which it is most definitely not -- the two top guards of the 2017 incoming rookie class made it a draft worth sacrificing a 20 wins for.
Or so we thought.
Philadelphia was so high on Washington combo guard and presumptive top pick Markelle Fultz that they mortgaged a bit of their future so they could nab him at number one. His start: not so hot. In the four games Fultz has seen action, he's contributed a grand total of 24 points and 9 rebounds, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 7 to 6. This all could be blamed on shoulder issues, or a messed up jump shot, or some combination thereof. But maybe not.
But if you believe the numbers, Ball might not even be the best rookie on his team.
Sure, the fine folks at Draft Express had plenty of nice things to say about the 6'9" Utah product, but they offered up a massive caveat: "[Kuzma] is not the most explosive finisher in a crowd and lacks a degree of physicality around the basket, issues which will be tested on both ends of the floor at the NBA level versus elite athletes and size."
All of which explains why he fell to the Lakers at 27.
Unfazed, the unheralded forward was a beast in his six preseason outings, averaging 17.3 points on 51.3 percent shooting and running the floor like a wing.
In contrast, Ball's preseason was a disappointment. In his two games played, the UCLA first-team All-American and his jumper -- a shot so funky that ESPN sent it to their laboratory for study -- were good for just 6.5 points on 33.3 percent shooting. His 12 assists were swell, but his 7 turnovers weren't. Still, the number-two pick came into the season owning the starting point guard gig, while Kuzma sat third on the power forward depth chart behind Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.
Then again, this was preseason. There was no way Kuzma would outplay Ball once the games meant something.
Thanks to his high draft position and his blabbermouth'd father, Ball has had a target on his back since opening night. Every so often, the rookie acquits himself quite well. Most nights, not so much.
In 6 of his first 10 games, Ball has hoisted 10 or more shot attempts. Of those six such outings, he's only managed to top 40 percent shooting from the field twice. His ability to find the bottom of the basket has been nonexistent in half of his contests, when he uglified the box score with shooting lines of 3 for 13 (twice), 3 for 15, 3 for 10, and 2 for 11.
Among Ball's most egregious issues is his inability to get to the free throw line. In 330 minutes played, the point guard with a not-insignificant usage rate of 18.7 percent has only gone to the stripe 13 times. I mean, even freakin' Nene takes 2.5 freebies a night.
How does Kuzma stack up next to Ball? Here are the rookies' respective traditional per-game numbers.
According to these digits, Ball has an edge in steals and blocks, but Kyle destroys his buddy on the offensive end of the floor.
Does an analytical deep dive support the traditional numbers?
How do Ball and Kuzma compare when it comes to such telling advanced stats as true shooting percentage (TS%), total rebound percentage (TR%), assist percentage (AS%), offensive win shares (OWS), defensive win shares (DWS), win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), box plus/minus (BPM), player efficiency rating (PER), and our in-house efficiency metric, nERD?
Turns out the advanced numbers more or less confirm the traditionals: Ball plays slightly better defense than Kuzma, but Kuzma plays better everything else than Ball.
Another check in Ball's negative column is his astounding inefficiency. Kuzma's 0.9 nERD score ranks 33rd in the NBA, the second-best rookie nERD in the Association. Of the 426 eligible players, Ball lands 420th.
Big advantage: Kuzma.
It could be argued that best way to numerically compare two individuals who have different roles and play different positions is to even the playing field and figure out how they'd do given the same amount of floor time. That all being the case, let's see how Ball and Kuzma's counting stats would stack up if they both got 36 minutes of nightly burn.
Ball fares slightly better here. His per-36 rebound, block, and steal averages, while not elite, can give the Lakers some hope that the kid won't crumble moving forward.
Considering that Kuzma came into camp with limited expectations, his per-36s are brilliant. Right about now, there are 20-some-odd NBA scouting departments kicking themselves for passing up on this efficient, high-energy, high-upside forward.
|Lonzo Ball: 2017-18||8.8||6.9||6.4||1.1||0.6||29.9||53.8|
|Jason Kidd: 1994-95||11.7||7.7||5.4||1.9||0.3||38.5||69.8|
|Rajon Rondo: 2006-07||6.4||3.8||3.7||1.6||0.1||41.8||64.7|
Ball falls somewhere in between Kidd and Rondo, which isn't a terrible place to be. The former is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the latter is a four-time All-Star.
As for Kuzma, he has some heavyweight comps of his own.
|Kyle Kuzma: 2017-18||15.4||1.4||6.3||0.5||2.1||56.3||78.9|
|Pau Gasol: 2001-02||17.6||2.7||8.9||0.5||0.1||51.8||70.9|
|Amar'e Stoudemire: 2002-03||13.5||1||8.8||0.8||1.1||47.2||66.1|
Kuzma's numbers are right up there with Gasol's and Stoudemire's Rookie of the Year campaigns. This isn't to say Kuzma is in the ROY discussion yet -- Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, and Lauri Markkanen are balling out, too -- but the fact that he can't be dismissed from the discussion says wonders.
The numbers tell us that as of right now, Kuzma is the better player, and his numbers should only amp up, with Nance out for the next four to six weeks and Randle off to his worst start since his rookie year. (Since Kuzma was inserted into the starting lineup two games ago, he's averaged 17.0 points and 12.5 rebounds in 38.0 minutes, so there you have it.)
The good news for the Lakers is that it doesn't really matter who wins the theoretical Ball-Kuzma battle. If L.A. can come out of 2017-18 with a Kidd/Rondo hybrid running the point and a Gasol/Stoudemire mash-up holding down the paint, they'll be just fine.