LOS ANGELES – Kyle Kuzma was effectively trapped.
Dozens of media members surrounded Lonzo Ball – who wouldn’t even play that night – at the adjoining locker. The swarm extended so far, it blocked Kuzma in his chair in the corner of the Lakers’ locker room.
Later that night, Kuzma scored 31 points, the most by a rookie on Christmas since LeBron James.
Ball is the Lakers’ highest-profile rookie. Kuzma is their best rookie.
Slowly but surely, Kuzma is claiming the credit he has earned.
Ball joined the Lakers with a headline-grabbing father, a thrilling up-tempo skill set, a signature shoe, overlapping fans from UCLA and the pedigree of the No. 2 pick. He was immediately tabbed Rookie of the Year favorite. His summer-league debut was an event. Lakers president Magic Johnson hyped Ball, still just a teenager, as a leader.
Kuzma, by contrast, grew up in Flint, Mich. – a city known for its high crime rate and poverty until it became known for its poisoned water. According to his mom, the family moved nine times in 16 years. He played for small high schools in the city’s suburbs then transferred out of state to a couple prep schools. At one in Philadelphia, he became a major recruit. But his grades were so poor, he had to get his GED in Denver just to get eligible.
He spent his first year on campus at Utah gray-shirting, not allowed to practice or even join team meals, let alone play in actual games. He worked his way up Utah’s rotation over the next three seasons, peaking with an All-Pac-12 selection last season (an honor shared with Ball, who, of course, got more attention for it).
Kuzma declared for the NBA draft, but was commonly viewed as a second-round pick. He aced the combine and individual workouts, and the Lakers took him No. 27. After his torturous journey, he had finally made it to the big time.
“There’s a lot of adversity within Flint, just growing up there,” Kuzma said. “So, I feel like, if I can get out of there, I can do anything.”
Kuzma hasn’t faced much adversity this season – not individually, at least.
He flourished in summer league (though Ball won MVP). A strong preseason only raised expectations higher in star-hungry Los Angeles.
Somehow, Kuzma is meeting them.
He’s averaging 17.5 points per game. Most rookies who scored so much over a full season won Rookie of the Year.
But for Kuzma to even enter the conversation is remarkable, considering where he was – even as recently as draft night. As long as he averages at least 16.1 points per game, Kuzma will break the rookie scoring record for someone drafted so low (currently held by John Long, whom the Pistons drafted No. 29 in 1978).
The 6-foot-9 Kuzma is quick and agile. His 7-foot wingspan only enhances the amount of ground he can cover. Advanced footwork shows his basketball intelligence.
But what really separates Kuzma is outside shooting.
Kuzma made a blistering 24-of-50 (48%) of his 3-pointers at summer league – an eye-popping mark considering he shot just 30.2% on 3s at Utah, including 32.1% his final season. On one hand, regression to the mean seemed inevitable. On the other hand, his stroke looked good.
While taking a healthy 5.3 3-point attempts per game in the regular season, Kuzma is making 39.6% of them. No rookie has ever matched that combination of volume and efficiency over a full season.
Kuzma said NBA distance agrees with him because it forces him to use his legs more.
“The college 3 is so short, it’s like, in reference, shooting a pop-a-shot,” Kuzma said. “It’s a different motion.”
Kuzma shoots well in part because he’s so confident. And as he converts from distance, he becomes even more confident.
The idea of a gradual adjustment to the NBA sounds practically foreign to him. He might not have been able to predict all this, but he sure won’t admit it surprises him.
“He believes he’s the best player on the court all the time,” said Ball, who has developed a friendship with Kuzma.
Kuzma has ascended so quickly, his playing time can now be taken for granted. While most players drafted in his range are just trying to claw their way into the rotation, Kuzma has earned big minutes.
That means the Lakers aren’t just relishing in his successes, but focusing on his flaws – chiefly defense. Kuzma has the size and fluidity to defend better, but he sometimes loses focus on that end.
“There’s no rookies that are elite defenders in the NBA,” Kuzma said.
There aren’t, and Kuzma won’t come close to breaking the mold. Still, there are glimpses of potential.
After Kuzma became the first Lakers rookie since Jerry West to score 25 points in three straight games, Lakers coach Luke Walton texted Kuzma, “great job defensively” with no mention of the offensive output.
“It’s important for him to know, one, that we’re watching that,” Walton said, “and, two, that we need him to be a really good defender for our team to have success.”
The Lakers haven’t had much of that. They’re a Western Conference-worst 11-26 and have lost eight straight. After the latest defeat, Kuzma scolded his team for giving up.
It’s the latest example of Kuzma coming to the forefront.
Kuzma’s dinner with Kobe Bryant became a fascination of fans. Kuzma addressed the home crowd before the Christmas game, a responsibility usually given to a veteran. He gets MVP chants at the free-throw line. The rookie even cracked the initial All-Star-voting leaderboard, getting more votes than John Wall, Chris Paul and, yes, Ball.
Though Kuzma is outperforming his acclaimed rookie teammate on the court, Ball can authoritatively offer praise in one area.
“He,” Ball said of Kuzma, “does good with the spotlight, as well.”