Heading into and immediately after the 2017 NBA Draft, the focus with respect to the Los Angeles Lakers was on their selection of Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 overall pick. But as Summer League, training camp and preseason passed, Kyle Kuzma emerged as arguably the biggest steal.
He was taken 27th overall, a draft pick the Lakers acquired in their trade with the Brooklyn Nets that sent D’Angelo Russell to the East Coast. Little was known of Kuzma, who spent three years at the University of Utah.
Lakers scout Bill Bertka was the first member of the front office to take notice Kuzma. He explained what he and the rest of the front office saw in the talented young forward, via Tania Ganguli of the L.A. Times:
“I said, ‘This guy has very good skills,’” said Bertka, who was been with the Lakers in various capacities for 43 years. “He can play in the post. He can play on the perimeter. He runs the floor. He’s active. But the thing that put him apart was his effort.”
That energy is why Pelinka and Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, grew smitten with Kuzma even as other teams and mock drafts considered him a second-round pick at best. Interviewing him, they learned that his life wasn’t easy growing up, impressing them all the more.
Kuzma’s exuberance and love of the game show through on nearly every possession he plays, whether he’s confidently firing up a smooth jumper right off the catch or gliding to the basket after utilizing a pump fake.
The 22-year-old rookie plays with confidence and decisiveness that are rare and valuable qualities in general, and especially from such a young player.
The Lakers are lucky they had an experienced observer like Bertka to pick Kuzma out from the pack, but they’re also lucky that he’s exploded out of the gates like he has. As high as the team was on Kuzma, it’s highly unlikely they thought he’d be this good, this fast.
If it was so obvious, there was no way he would’ve lasted until pick No. 27. For developing that quickly, Kuzma absolutely deserves the lion’s share of the credit.
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