How Kyle Kuzma hopes to take his game to the next level with the Wizards

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How Kuzma hopes to take his game to the next level originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Kyle Kuzma is already an NBA champion and an established veteran of the league, yet at 26 years old he likely still presents upside for the Wizards, who acquired him in a trade from the Lakers in July. Research suggests NBA players peak in their late 20s, which means Kuzma could still have more levels to reach.

While playing for the Lakers, alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kuzma's numbers leveled off the past two seasons. After peaking at 18.7 points per game in 2018-19, his second season, he had to play a more complementary role on a contending team led by two upper elite star players.

Kuzma, though, posted his most efficient season last year, with a 53.3 effective field goal percentage along with 12.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. He shot 36.1% from three and drew praise for his evolution as a defender.

Now Kuzma joins a Wizards team with a different roster makeup than the Lakers, perhaps with a better opportunity for him to spread his wings as a scorer and a leader.

"Coming to this organization, [general manager] Tommy [Sheppard] has said they have high expectations for me. I want to withhold that," Kuzma said.

Kuzma remarked in his introductory press conference how leadership is an area of focus for him moving forward. He was the young guy in L.A. in a locker room of championship veterans. In Washington, he is one of the most experienced players on the team, having played in 303 games between the regular season and playoffs.

When it comes to his basketball skillset, Kuzma believes the next step is getting better at shooting off the dribble. He knocked down only 29.0% off the dribble last season, per NBA tracking data.

"That’s something that I’ve really worked on this offseason. Being able to, whether it’s pick-and-roll, break a guy down. Getting just a quick and efficient shot, whether that’s off-the-dribble, getting into the midrange. That’s something I want to continue to improve on because I believe I can do that at a high level," Kuzma said.

Kuzma said a big area of emphasis in his offseason training program has been gaining weight and adding muscle. He has been active in the weight room in part because he wants to continue his track of improvement on defense.

Kuzma was relied upon heavily by the Lakers to take on tough defensive assignments at the forward position. Even if he takes on a larger role offensively with the Wizards, he doesn't want to get away from what has been working on that end of the floor.

"I want to continue to be a defender. I think I have the potential to do really great things on that side of the ball," Kuzma said.

The Wizards could use what Kuzma can provide on defense. He's a tall and agile defender, which they missed especially down the stretch of last season when rookie Deni Avdija got hurt. They were overwhelmed in the postseason by taller wings like Jayson Tatum and Tobias Harris. Kuzma could end up being the guy who changes that by adding size and athleticism to their defensive front. 

As far as his offensive role goes, it's harder to project. The Wizards have a clear-cut No. 1 scoring option in Bradley Beal and then not a lot separating the rest of their rotation. Kuzma could end up being anywhere from their No. 2 option to more of a secondary bench role, depending on how things shake out.

Spencer Dinwiddie and Rui Hachimura figure to play central roles in the offense and guys like Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant have track records as scorers to fall back on.

Whether it's scoring or not, however, Kuzma sees ways he can help offensively that tie into where he would like his game to progress from here.

"This offseason I’ve really done a great job of hammering my ball-handling. I think last year with the Lakers, I did a great job of showing and being a willing passer, somebody that can get guys open and get guys open looks," Kuzma said. 

"For me, adding a handle and a more consistent, stronger one will really allow me to be an on-ball type of guy. Not only just a scorer and be that type of threat, but be a threat to get guys open. Get Rui open shots, get Brad easier looks, help Spencer get downhill, get big [Daniel] Gafford pick-and-roll lobs; all those things, it’s going to help."

In Kuzma, the Wizards should be getting a reliable veteran role player who provides value on both ends. But given his age, and how he plans to round out his game, he has a chance to be much more than that.