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Reflecting on Kyle Kuzma’s under-the-radar excellence

The former punching bag of cynical NBA fans shone last year in an increased role for the Washington Wizards.

NBA: Washington Wizards at New York Knicks
Kyle Kuzma, 27, is ready to break out as a second star behind Bradley Beal.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-22 NBA season was a tough one for the Washington Wizards. With Bradley Beal injured, Rui Hachimura struggling with mental health, Montrezl Harrell unhappy (and subsequently being shipped to Charlotte) and the rest of the roster struggling to find an identity, Washington let everyone loose to compete for the title of “best player in Beal’s absence.”

Though Kristaps Porzingis made a compelling case following his trade deadline move to the Wizards, Kyle Kuzma stepped up the most all season long and evolved into a leader and viable third option next to Beal and Porzingis.

Since Beal missed over half the season and Porzingis played only 17 games with the Wizards, Kuzma led the Wizards in scoring with 17.1 points per game. He led the team in rebounding (excluding Porzingis) with 8.5 rebounds per game. Kuzma also scored the most total points on the Wizards and was second on the team in total minutes. Though he also averaged a career-high 2.6 turnovers per game, such a jump in turnovers is typical for players moving into leading roles.

The 2022 Most Improved Player race was the most crowded it’s ever been, but Kuzma’s name was surprisingly rarely brought up. Kuzma averaged career-highs in rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and minutes and stepped into a leading role for the first time in his career.

To be fair, Kuzma is certainly no leading man on a winning team. As the Wizards’ de facto best player, he couldn’t lead his squad past the 12th seed in the Eastern Conference, and many Wizards fans would have preferred to tank for a higher draft pick.

However, I implore Wizards fans to think about last season this way: Whether or not we like it, the Wizards just gave Beal a $251 million contract and are clearly not looking to rebuild. With the dismal records of teams like the Magic and Rockets, competing (is that the right word?) for a high draft pick could have gone disastrously.

Outside of the top three draft picks, the only truly NBA-ready prospect selected in the top ten was Iowa’s Keegan Murray, whom the Kings selected with the fourth pick. In between Murray and the Wizards’ selection of Johnny Davis, nearly every player selected was christened with the “intriguing prospect” label.

In all likelihood, the Wizards tanking would have resulted in a pick in the five-to-eight range and netted a prospect like Benedict Mathurin or Shaedon Sharpe. While these players are studs in the making, the key phrase there is “in the making” — playing for a team trying to compete for a playoff spot like the Wizards are would benefit neither the player nor the team.

So, my conclusion is this: While the Wizards’ situation is not ideal, last season was better spent giving Kuzma a leading role and developing him into a viable third option than tanking for a pick considering the direction the front office is trying to take with Beal at the helm.

Am I giving the front office too much credit? Probably. Is a Beal-Porzingis-Kuzma trio escaping the play-in tournament? Probably not. Does the Wizards front office suck? Well, yeah.

Either way, Kuzma’s growth last year is certainly something Wizards fans should appreciate after his much-maligned tenure with the Lakers. Though he may never evolve into an All Star, Kuzma is still a valuable third option on a Wizards team looking to compete. Either Kuzma will help Beal and Porzingis finally lead the Wizards to a deep playoff run, or, more realistically, he will net a stash of draft picks once the Wizards finally pull the plug on the Bradley Beal era and enter a rebuild.

Whatever happens, don’t forget to appreciate Kuzma while he gives his all to this city.