The Rookie of the Year race seemed done and dusted a month ago.
Ben Simmons had played himself into being the odds-on favorite in a matter of weeks, seeing some bookmakers send out an early Christmas present to punters who bet on him preseason.
He’s still the overwhelming favorite at -1250, but along with Donovan Mitchell, there’s another youngster closing the gap on the 76ers’ point guard.
Kyle Kuzma — the No. 27 overall pick — was awarded the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in October and November.
He’s now primed and ready to take the December honors and has risen to the second line of betting for the ROY at +700.
His December hasn’t only been one of the best among rookies, but it’s been one of the best across the league as a whole.
Following an injury to Brook Lopez, Kuzma has taken on more of a responsibility in the offense over the last month. He’s taking 15 shots a game and connecting at a 49.1 percent clip while shooting an incredible 46.3 percent from beyond the arc for his 20.7 points a night.
His high-scoring December has given his season average a boost to 18.1 points per game — the most ever by a Lakers rookie.
How is he doing it?
Kuzma is already a polished scorer with the ability to connect from any spot on the court. He will hit jump shots with a hand in his face from 30 feet before coming back down the court and displaying post moves normally reserved for seasoned veterans.
He’s a volume scorer — one who isn’t afraid to shoot no matter how few are falling on the night. Wheather he’s 1-7 or 6-7, if a player is offering up just a little too much room on the closeout, Kuzma is hoisting the semi-contested jumper.
So far, Kuzma hasn’t been exposed to the rough stretches a scorer of his bulk inevitably needs to navigate.
He’s only had five games shooting below 40 percent overall and four games without connecting on a 3-pointer. It will happen, but if there’s one thing we know about this kid, he’s going to shoot his way out of it.
Kuzma is billed as a 3-point specialist and intends on competing in the 3-Point Shootout at this season’s All-Star Game. Despite that, he still manages to score 46.6 percent of his points in the paint — further highlighting his ability as a scorer anywhere on the floor.
That 46.6 percent is similar to other inside-out players DeMarcus Cousins and Joel Embiid.
Kuzma is a bonafide scorer. He’s going to make a career out of putting the ball through the basket, but will his career start with an unexpected addition to the trophy cabinet?
Kuzma’s chances at winning the ROY
Right now, the oddsmakers are saying no. Simmons is still way out in front, although he’s starting to taper off.
With Joel Embiid missing time and opposing defenses scheming to capitalize on Simmons’ lack of long-range scoring ability, the LSU product is only averaging 13.9 points per game in December.
Where he dominates the rest of the field is with his 8.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game for the season. He’s able to have an influence on games despite not being a dominant scorer.
Kuzma is emerging, however, and will continue to close the gap on Simmons.
Kyle Kuzma currently has the highest TS% (60.9%) of any rookie in NBA history that's averaged 15 ppg or more. Seriously.
— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) December 23, 2017
He’s on pace to be not only the highest-scoring Lakers rookie ever, but also the best shooting rookie ever if he can keep this up.
Kuzma’s play and a handful of injuries to others have forced a previously reluctant Luke Walton to increase his minutes. With more minutes, we can expect more nights like his career-high 38 points against the Rockets.
Pete Zayas of Forum Blue and Gold dives deep into here:
As mentioned with Donovan Mitchell and his ROY chances, if Kuzma can creep to over 20 points per game, the ROY discussion will heat up.
You can’t ignore a guy with such a refined stroke who’s setting shooting and scoring records, even given how good Simmons has been.
The award will no longer be won and lost based on Simmons and his health. He has two guys breathing down his neck, and Kuzma is going to do his best to continue to shoot his way into contention on this Lakers team that, right now, lives and dies by his output.
From the 27th pick to beating his teammate and preseason ROY favorite, Lonzo Ball, Kuzma lifting the trophy would be a fairy tale.
He may have started the season flying under the radar, but Kuzma has announced himself, and the league is fully aware of who he is and what he can do.
Is it enough to take out the Rookie of the Year (+700)? Probably not just yet.
But the idea might not be so farfetched if he manufactures another history-making month for the purple and gold.
All odds provided by William Hill as of 12/27
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