After a week that included two consecutive games in which he set career highs in scoring and a dinner with Kobe Bryant, it would be understandable for Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma to be used to attention around Los Angeles.
He isn’t, even if he appreciates it. As the first-year forward entered Dunk Contest’s new L.A. location to help the NBA merchandise store kick off its grand opening by signing posters and meeting fans, he heard a chorus of “Kuuuuz” and was told by a store employee they sold out of the bundles that were being sold to guarantee a chance to meet Kuzma, his surprise showed how new all of this attention still is to him.
“It sold out?” Kuzma said, eyes widening. “I didn’t know it sold out.”
The event had sold out, and more, as hordes of adoring Lakers fans formed a line around the block in hopes of getting a chance to meet the player quickly becoming the brightest young star in Los Angeles.
But while Kuzma might have been slightly stunned by the turnout, he wasn’t by the admirers walking through the store trying to start “MVP” chants or yelling things like that he’d win Rookie of the Year, or that he was the Lakers’ best player, or even that he was the team’s “best since Kobe.” Even if that last one drew a smile.
“I’m just trying to win games. That’s what’s important to me, because if we win then those (accolades) will be there for sure,” Kuzma said. “I just want to win right now.”
Unlike most rookies, and especially rookies taken with the 27th overall pick in the draft, Kuzma has actually shown that he can contribute to wins in his first year. But while being overlooked would be easy to cite as fuel, Kuzma has a different, subdued but confident mindset.
“I can name pretty much everybody taken before me, but I don’t really look at it like that. I try to focus on the top players in the league and not rookies because I feel like I’m better than most rookies,” he said. “So I just try to focus on other, greater players because that’s what I want to be like.”
Normally, a late-first round pick dropping a statement like that would send social media into a furor, but Kuzma has actually played well enough to justify his outlook. The 22-year-old is a decisive and versatile bucket-getting dynamo who ranks second on the Lakers and among rookies in scoring with 16.4 points per game while shooting an efficient 50 percent from the field.
Kuzma seems to be taking all of that success in stride and not letting the adoration of fans and extra media attention go to his head, probably because he’s seen how fickle of a beast all of that hype can be when a player doesn’t live up to it. That knowledge is why he’s been so ready to stand up for his fellow rookie and best friend on the Lakers, Lonzo Ball.
“He’s my teammate and he’s very misunderstood as a person. There’s a lot of media out there and people that expect him to be something that he’s not right now and that’s okay because he’s a rookie,” Kuzma said.
“He’s going to be a great player in this league in the future. That may come in the next game or the next 20 games, or it might not happen for a few years, but I just don’t like how the media portrays it.”
The latest psychoanalysis of Ball ranged from deciding whether or not a haircut is evidence of an attempt at a new start, to breakdowns of his declining to enter the Lakers-Suns scuffle.
“I mean if Lonzo tripped on this (points at a table leg) and fell down that’d be on ESPN,” Kuzma said. “So I just don’t like how it all is, but he handles it well and is a professional.”
Kuzma also appears self-assured enough to not need the media to build him up and not to care when they break him down. For now, from dinner with one of the greatest players in Lakers history to signing autographs for throngs of his quickly growing fan club, Kuzma is just enjoying the journey.
“I could be really good in a couple years but I don’t really put a destination on where I’m trying to go,” he said. “I’m trying to be Kyle Kuzma. Of course you always have comparisons out there, but I want to be unique.”