The Aesthetic: Watching Kyle Kuzma from afar


What do you see when you watch Kyle Kuzma play? The answer depends a lot on how far away you are.

Kyle Kuzma moves gracefully, gliding from end to end, from sideline to sideline. In the triple-threat position, he sets a wide base. A ball swing, a shoulder pivot, a lightning-quick jab step moves the defender and then, with long, loping strides, he’s off again. In the paint, again, a wide base. Jumping off two feet. Sliding past torsos and vertical limbs, unfurling his wingspan for a gentle finger roll or soft floater.

His jumper is adaptable. Backing into the post, shimmy, turnaround, fall-away. Drive, lean into contact, leap away on one foot, torso 15 degrees off-axis for the 10-footer. Crossover through the legs, scissor step and then reverse the crossover, step-back 3. Spotting up, feet parallel, ball delivered into the shooting pocket, quick hop and fire.

And every move accented by the hues of basketball royalty, gold, and a rich purple. The distinctive lettering, legacy with a capital L.

From the upper levels of Staples Center or the standard wide-angle of a television broadcast, Kuzma looks like something special — sculpted iconography of the NBA’s ideal wing. But zoom in, strip away the Lakers’ mystique, put him in an anonymous jersey of muted grey monochrome, snip the reflective sinews connecting his movements to our memories of retired greats. Remove the layered artifices built up around Kyle Kuzma and find the raw material of basketball.

In roughly half an hour, you can watch each of the first 442 shots Kuzma has taken this year, back to back. Exactly 193 of those shots went in the basket, but as you watch each fractional possession build they all look like they’re going in. He takes tough shots but the fundamentals feel sound, everything seems makeable.

Of course, 249 of those shots do not go in. Some are on line but come up short, kissing the front rim. Some spin out, or come off the backboard just a few degrees off line from where they need to be, right angles that should be a touch obtuse. Watch a bit longer, fight the slow creep of unfocused eyes and you start to see things you didn’t see at first. He’s fading slightly when he should be going straight up. Still turning his body to square up when he leaves the ground. Getting a hair more rotation than he needs, sending the ball spinning around the rim and out.

Watch any player this closely for this long and the warts will reveal themselves, slowly lifting off the screen, embossed in real-time. But the basketball essence of Kyle Kuzma exists in this space between what he appears to be and what he actually does, in the swirling interplay between product and process.

Kuzma is a work of impressionism — delicate brushwork and fluid movement, handles, jab steps, arcing spin moves and the bright lights of Staples Center reflected back. Stand back far enough to see the entire composition and your brain will intuitively assemble it for you, it will find the outline of Jordan, the implied Kobe-ness of it all. But the closer you get, the harder it is for your brain to hold it all together, to not lose the entire images as the edges of each brushstroke come into sharper focus.

In discussing Kuzma, his relative value, his ceiling, his place in the modern hierarchy, it is pretty clear which voices see him as a work of art and which seem as the messy and somewhat haphazard application of skill and athletic traits, creating the illusion of a meaningful basketball player.

It would all be so much easier if basketball players were judged solely on their capacity for creating beauty. In that world, Kuzma might be elite and the 249 shots he’s missed this season would simply be considered lesser works in his still impressive canon. But beauty is just a happy byproduct of competition and players are judged, largely, on their capacity for creating wins. In this world, Kuzma’s 249 misses are deeply problematic, a billowing red flag that he is a scorer who appears more effective than he actually is.

In truth, it matters that Kuzma is an inconsistently effective player — a scorer whose field goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage are all below the league average. It matters that, for all the physical tools at his disposal, he probably hurts as much as helps on the defensive end. It matters that his ability to create for others and his relative rebounding ability are all on the bottom half of the percentile scale for his position. And it matters that some of this is overlooked because he plays in a uniform of purple and gold, next to The King and his uni-browed champion.

But it also matters that Kuzma is just 24 years old, and it matters that he looks a player who can be so much more than what he is. At some level, the potential to create beauty is just the potential to create.

The Aesthetic is an irregular column series, treating basketball as a purely artistic medium. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.