Former Ute Kyle Kuzma proving his worth in the NBA bubble

Ryan Kostecka

With 4.5 seconds left in the game and the LA Lakers tied with the Denver Nuggets at 121, LeBron James had the ball in his hands and was looking to inbound it. He threw the ball to Anthony Davis, and then cut towards the rim — but Kyle Kuzma, the former Ute, actually ran towards Davis and found himself wide open.

Davis didn't hesitate, passing the ball to Kuzma who caught the ball in one motion, set his feet behind the three-point line and buried the game-winner with 0.4 seconds left. He finished with 25 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals in the victory.

While the game itself didn't really matter all that much — the Lakers had already secured the top seed in the Western conference — it was a huge statement made by a player who the Lakers desperately need to step up if they're going to win their first title in a decade.

Kuzma is arguably the most important player on LA's roster, and it's because of what he can do on the offensive side of the ball as a compliment to James and Davis.

"In order for us to win a championship, he has to be our third-best player," James said. "And if I’m struggling or AD’s struggling, he has to be our second-best player on any given night. It’s just, we can’t win a championship if Kuz' doesn’t play well."

Kuzma's emergence in the frontcourt as a scorer and playmaker is massive to LA's success because it allows Vogel to stagger the minutes of James and Davis, LA's two stars. By staggering their minutes throughout the course of a game and season, it gives Kuzma the opportunity to play sidekick to either player while both stars stay healthy for the postseason.

It also provides the Lakers with that deadly third option that's the key to a title run. While many teams will be keyed in on James and Davis, and for good reason, a lot of them don't have that third defender who can shut someone down. 

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For instance, the Clippers (LA's biggest threat to the title) have superstars in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard — both players are capable of matching up with James and Davis on both ends of the floor. But while the Clippers have other offensive players, they don't have anyone else (Patrick Beverley has struggled against Kuzma this season) who can defend the 6-foot-8 Kuzma.

"Kuz has been one of our best players since this restart in these practices, he’s had a couple of stretches where he just dominated the floor and it’s been really encouraging to see," LA head coach Frank Vogel said. "He had some inconsistency with the beginning of our season because he dealt with three different injuries that really prohibited him from getting his legs under him. The shot-making wasn’t always there, but it’s been there at a very high level during this restart, and we’re very encouraged and excited about what having a real/healthy training camp could mean for him. Hopefully that leads to an increased role and gives us that boost that we’re looking for."

Kuzma's emergence in the frontcourt as a scorer and playmaker is massive to LA's success because it allows Vogel to stagger the minutes of James and Davis, LA's two stars. By staggering their minutes throughout the course of a game and season, it gives Kuzma the opportunity to play sidekick to either player while both stars stay healthy for the postseason run.

Since the restart, Kuzma has been averaging 15.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game while knocking down 44.4% (16-for-36) of his shots from beyond the arc.

The biggest positive for Kuzma's performance on Monday night was that it came after arguably his worst game of the restart when he finished with 11 points on 3-of-14 shooting two night prior against Indiana.

That sort of confidence in himself is what's going to help him carry the load for the Lakers throughout the postseason. Kuzma is ready for that role, and he's as confident as ever after knocking down that game-winner over the outstretched arm of 7-foot-2 center Bol Bol.

"Jesus could be in front of me and I’d probably still shoot," Kuzma said Monday. 

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