Kyle Kuzma plays basketball with a chip on his shoulder that isn’t going away any time soon. He could afford to relax just a bit after a first season with the Los Angeles Lakers in which he earned First Team All-Rookie honors.
Kuzma might have been satisfied by an offseason where the national media and everyone from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to former teammates Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye have heaped praise on him.
But that is not how Kuzma is wired. He is never going to relax, on that you can be certain. Kuzma may not have been a big-name collegiate basketball player, but when his chance came in May 2017, he was ready.
At the NBA combine, he stole the spotlight from top prospects by promptly sinking a series of three-point shots before a crowd of observers. One person in attendance that day was the Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, who was immediately smitten.
Kuzma led the Lakers in scoring in Summer League, in preseason, and during the regular season (in a tie with Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram at 16.1 points per game). He set a Lakers’ franchise record for most three-point shots made in a rookie season.
Ironically, Kuzma’s first year was even more impressive than it appeared — and it appeared pretty great.
Other players who made the first team All-Rookie team spent their entire year as starters and with clearly defined roles. When Gordon Hayward left the Utah Jazz it opened the door for Donovan Mitchell, and when Hayward got hurt in Boston, it opened the door for Jayson Tatum.
Kuzma never had a clearly defined role. And although he started 37 games, he was never really a starter. He spent the year filling in wherever needed, playing different positions with a revolving door of teammates, many of whom were promoted midseason from the G League because of injuries. There was little consistency or stability.
Despite the obstacles, Kuzma had the best season of any Lakers rookie since the 1980s. He emerged as the leader of the young core, a role he quipped was thrust upon him because “Ingram said 10 words all year and Lonzo is like 12.”
Despite this success, Kuzma cannot relax because there are still critics who downplay his future. There are three labels that are pinned on him by the naysayers.
Some dismiss Kuzma as merely a “sixth man.” Others proclaim that at age 22 in his rookie season he already reached his peak and will not get any better. Some say he is a one-dimensional player who can score but do nothing else.
Kuzma will come off the bench again this year but only because of circumstances. He would start on many teams but now finds himself playing behind LeBron James. Still, anyone who dismisses Kuzma as “merely a sixth man” is missing the boat entirely, as he will get plenty of minutes and be on the court at the end of games when it counts.
There is unfair prejudice against players who join the NBA after three or four years of college. It is a stigma that is hard to shake no matter how well you play. The fact is, NBA players only start to reach their peak at 26 or 27. There is plenty of room, and time, for Kuzma’s game to grow.
He works incredibly hard, and as many have pointed out, he has a thirst for knowledge and leaves no stone unturned in his quest to get better. He was terrific last season, but anyone who thinks he will not be a much better player this year does not know Kyle Kuzma.
A quick look at the stats dispels the notion that Kuzma can score but do nothing else. He averaged 6.3 rebounds a game as a rookie, while Ingram averaged 5.3 in his second year and Brook Lopez averaged 4.0 per game.
Kuzma’s stats across the board far exceeded those of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler when they were rookies. Kuzma also made some of the team’s most memorable passes last season.
The biggest criticism of Kuzma is his defense, but even that is exaggerated. Like most rookies, he struggled during the first part of the year but got better as the season progressed.
He has a long way to go, but Kuzma has the potential, and more importantly the mindset, to be a good defender. He knows it is important, and he will get there.
Then there is his shooting. If there is one thing Kuz has demonstrated, he can score, and score big, in any of a myriad of ways. Put the ball in his hands and he’ll find a way to put it in the basket, time and time again.
When training camp opens later this month, fans will see someone who is locked, loaded and primed to prove again that the doubters are wrong. Kuzma is mentally tough, hungry, fearless, and never satisfied. He takes nothing for granted.
The moment is never too big for him, and he exhibits what some refer to as the mamba mentality. And if you needed more evidence of what’s ahead, look no further than Kobe Bryant championing Kuzma’s offseason work and growth.
Those who dismiss Kyle Kuzma’s potential to be an elite NBA player do so at their own risk.