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Is Kuzma special? The Doppelgänger Machine says he’s at least unique

Sacramento Kings v Washington Wizards
Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

Armed with a new four-year, $90 million contract, Kyle Kuzma will take the floor this autumn as the Washington Wizards’ best known player. Even with the offseason moves that sent Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis elsewhere, it seems improbable (at least to me) that he would be the team’s best player.

(Yes, I know the contract’s reported value was $102 million. According to Spotrac, $12 million is in the form of unlikely to be earned incentives. The guaranteed money, which totals $90 million, is what counts against the cap.)

As I’ve written a few times now, Kuzma’s kinda glittery per game stats — a career best 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 3.7 assists — had their value but were a bit less than they appear on the surface. Efficiency is critical in the NBA, and his was terrible (as it has been throughout his career).

Here’s a quick comparison of Kuzma’s shooting to league average last season:

  • effective field goal percentage — avg.: 54.5% | Kuzma: 51.8%
  • two-point FG% — avg.: 54.8% | Kuzma: 53.3%
  • three-point FG% — avg.: 36.1% | Kuzma: 33.3%
  • free throw percentage — avg.: 78.2% | Kuzma: 73.0%
  • true shooting percentage — avg.: 64.9% | Kuzma: 59.4%

His assists per possession were right at league average, but his turnovers were ~55% higher than average. His offensive rebound rate was about half the league average. All that rolls together into an offensive rating 12.5 points per 100 possessions below league average.

None of the theories about why his efficiency could rise significantly next season hold much validity. He’s never been efficient (even when playing with Lebron James and Anthony Davis), and his self-imposed difficult shot diet is unlikely to improve with the departures of Beal and Porzingis.

But I’m not here to trash Kuzma. Despite the inefficiency, I like his effort and attitude, his new contract is reasonable, and I’ll enjoy watching him play on a lot of nights, as long as he’s around.

Kuzma’s results from the statistical doppelgänger machine are fascinating to me. They’re mostly wings and power forward types, and while they range from pretty good to at times very good, most of them have reputations that exceed their on-court performance.

Hey, if one of the stat goobers can tweet (X? xClaim?) that Kuzma ranked in the 7th percentile for shot quality instead of saying his shot selection sucked, I can euphemize “overrated.”

Also, Kuzma is relatively unique in the statistical record. The first three comps are fairly close but then begin to drift. For example, Daniel Gafford’s 10th closest comp scored an 89 (where 100 is a perfect match and closer to 100 means more similar). For Kuzma, that’s the score of his third closest match. The fourth closest season on Kuzma’s list scores an 86 — that same score ranks 42nd on Gafford’s list.

So let’s talk doppelgängers. My Statistical Doppelgänger Machine factors age and an array of pace-neutral statistical categories like minutes played, usage, preferred shot types, offensive and defensive rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, fouls, scoring, and an overall measure of the player’s production relative to era.

The Machine does not include variables for size, position, or athleticism, but even so individuals tend to get “doppelgängers” who are relatively close in each of those categories.

  1. J.R. Smith, 2012-13, New York Knicks — Smith came off the bench for the Knicks, and he would go on to one of the most indelible brain farts in NBA history, but the production pattern was similar to Kuzma’s, the efficiency was similar, and the PPAs were identical (each scored a 95). Smith was marginally better — by age 26 (this comp season), I had Smith with four seasons that rated average or better. I have Kuzma with one so far.
  2. Stephen Jackson, 2004-05, Indiana Pacers — No one thought more of Jackson than Jackson himself. He played hard most of the time, defended with effort (most of the time), and got passed around the league because he could be incredibly annoying. Like Kuzma, Jackson was inefficient on offense. I have Jackson with two better-than-average seasons. His peak was a 111 PPA at age 28 in 2006-07.
  3. Al Harrington, 2008-09, Golden State Warriors/New York Knicks — Harrington is probably a starter on my all-time, all-overrated team. He looked like he should be good. People thought he was good. He got 16 seasons in the NBA. But he was never more than about average.
  4. Julius Randle, 2021-22, New York Knicks — This is where the similarities start getting more distant. If Harrington starts on my all-overrated team, Randle likely gets a bench role. I think he’s a good player, but two-time All-NBA? Nah. He wouldn’t have gotten my vote either of those seasons. Last season was the best of his career, in my estimation. Anyway, this was the down year between his two All-NBA selections. What was similar between Randle and Kuzma? Efficiency. What was different? Randle had significantly more rebounds and assists.
  5. Khris Middleton, 2018-19, Milwaukee Bucks — This was Middleton’s age 27 season, and it was significantly better than Kuzma’s best season so far. Middleton hit his peak (a 199 PPA) the following season at age 28. The Wizards would love to see that kind of leap from Kuzma.
  6. Pascal Siakam, 2019-20, Toronto Raptors — Very good player who’s another probable starter on my all-overrated team. Siakam’s best season in my view was 2018-19 — the year Toronto won their championship. He was crazy efficient (120 offensive rating) on 21% usage. Then Kawhi Leonard left, Siakam’s usage skyrocketed and his efficiency fell. He was named second team All-NBA for this comp season, and he got third team in 2021-22. I didn’t think he should have gotten either one.
  7. Rudy Gay, 2012-13, Toronto Raptors — Once folks got over the idea that Gay was a star, he could settle into being a useful average-ish player year after year after year. In his 17-year career, I have him with 10 average or better seasons. His last was at age 33 in 2019-20.
  8. Glenn Robinson, 1999-00, Milwaukee Bucks — The first overall pick in 1994, the “Big Dog” was more medium sized. While he seems like a quintessential Ernie Grunfeld draft pick, Grunfeld wouldn’t get to the Bucks front office for another five years. This comp season was the worst of Robinson’s prime that had PPA scores of 138, 111 (this season), 134 and 126. In PPA, average is 100 and higher is better. Robinson posted a 96 at age 30, and his production declined precipitously from there.
  9. Tobias Harris, 2019-20, Philadelphia 76ers — At least the Wizards aren’t paying max money for Kuzma. That said, while their overall production profiles are similar, Harris has been simply better. I have Harris with 10 seasons as good or better than Kuzma’s best so far.
  10. Blake Griffin, 2017-18, Los Angeles Clippers/Detroit Pistons — This was the 28-year old Griffin who was already starting to decline because of repeated leg injuries. He managed one more full season of very good play for the Pistons (a 146 PPA over 75 games at age 29) before the injuries made him a mediocre part-time player.


Who’s next through the Doppelgänger Machine?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Delon Wright
    (38 votes)
  • 18%
    Mike Muscala
    (14 votes)
  • 32%
    Landry Shamet
    (25 votes)
77 votes total Vote Now