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Kyle Kuzma shedding Lakers’-other-rookie label

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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.

Kuzma probably won’t. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is scoring even more (18.3 points per game), and the 76ers’ Ben Simmons has outplayed both.

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.”

Sacramento Kings turning former arena into coronavirus surge hospital

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If you’re old enough, you might remember Arco Arena as the home of the Sacramento Kings when they were a playoff team. Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Peja Stojaković, and company pushed the Shaq/Kobe Lakers to seven games in 2002 and won huge playoff games in the arena. Arco was where Jason Williams was dropping dimes without looking, and arena which later became known as the Sleep Train Arena, Power Balance Pavilion, and eventually the current Natomas Arena.

Now, it’s about to be a coronavirus surge hospital.

The Kings are making the arena available and it will house about 360 beds, the team announced on Friday. The team also is donating $250,000 to support area community organizations providing services to families in need in the area, plus donating 100,000 medical masks to state and local health agencies.

“On behalf of the entire Kings family, our hearts are with all who have been affected by this pandemic,” said Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé in a statement. “California always leads the nation and the world, and we applaud Governor [Gavin] Newsom’s strong and decisive leadership to keep Californians healthy and safe during this crisis…

“Our community has always come first, and that is more important now than ever,” Ranadivé continued. “The Kings are proud to help by providing additional space to accommodate a predicted surge in patients. We are also donating masks to help keep people healthy, and critical resources to area organizations that are addressing food insecurity and other issues as a result of the coronavirus. I have always been in awe of the resilience and ingenuity of the American people and firmly believe that together, we will defeat this invisible enemy.”

The Kings moved to the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento in 2015 and since then their former home and practice arena has mostly sat vacant. The Kings’ G-League team practices there at times, but like the rest of basketball they find their season suspended.

Hopefully, this arena helps save some lives in the California capital. That would be the most important thing ever to happen in the building.

WNBA postpones season

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Mavericks owner Mark Cuban backed off his belief that the NBA could resume in May.

It’s just already clear, amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’ll be unsafe to hold professional basketball games that soon.

WNBA release:

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement:

“As developments continue to emerge around the COVID-19 pandemic, including the extension of the social distancing guidelines in the United States through April 30, the WNBA will postpone the start of its training camps and tip of the regular season originally scheduled for May 15.  While the league continues to use this time to conduct scenario-planning regarding new start dates and innovative formats, our guiding principle will continue to be the health and safety of the players, fans and employees.

Many top female players – including Los Angeles Sparks guard Sydney Wiese, who tested positive for coronavirus – play overseas during the WNBA offseason. That frequency of travel makes it even riskier for WNBA teams to gather any time soon.

The WNBA will still hold its draft April 17, conducting proceedings virtually. That could provide lessons to the NBA as it determines how to handle its draft.

Joel Embiid, 76ers owners pledging $1.3M for fighting coronavirus

76ers owner Josh Harris and Joel Embiid
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Joel Embiid just showed up 76ers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer by pledging to pay team employees who were set to have their pay cut. Amid widespread backlash, the 76ers backtracked on their salary-reduction plan.

Now – with a portion of Embiid’s coronavirus-related donation unallocated and Harris and Blitzer looking to change the narrative around them – those three are working together.

Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Joel Embiid, Sixers managing partner Josh Harris and co-managing partner David Blitzer are contributing a combined $1.3 million to Penn Medicine, establishing a funding campaign for COVID-19 antibody testing of frontline healthcare workers.

According to a Penn Medicine press release, “The pledge from Embiid, Harris and Blitzer will provide a much-needed boost for efforts to quickly identify health care workers who may have immunity to the new virus.”

This is great.

Some Utah Jazz employees laid off as part of cutback across owner’s businesses

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The Philadephia 76ers came in early, trying to force 20 percent cutbacks in salaries across the franchise’s staff. That lasted less than 24 hours before the backlash hit, the net worth of the team’s primary owner, Joshua Harris, was trending on Twitter, and the decision was reversed.

That stopped other owners from making a similar move or laying employees off for a while, but not long after the top 100 earners at the NBA League office — including Commissioner Adam Silver — were given a 20 percent pay reduction. The worsening economic crisis caused by the coronavirus shutdown of the United States is pushing NBA owners to act.

On Friday, the Utah Jazz — owned by the Larry H. Miller Group, which in total has more 80 different companies under its umbrella — sent this message to Adrian Wojnarowski ESPN:

“Due to the impact on our customer-facing businesses from this unprecedented pandemic, the (Miller Group) …. unfortunately had to make difficult decisions to reduce a small percentage of our workforce. Over the past several weeks, we have worked to manage and reduce costs, including executive compensation, and have reached a point where we have had to say farewell to a limited number of our valued employees.

“We have connected with our associates with outplacement services and aligned them with employers who have immediate hiring needs. We remain focused on helping our communities stay healthy.”

Reports out of Utah say these are layoffs that hit a lot of people and could be permanent.

It’s not fair, but little is fair right now. As noted, this is not just a layoff of some Jazz employees but also people at other businesses across the Larry H. Miller company.

Expect other NBA owners to follow suit soon, too. Not all, but some. Like owners of businesses of all sizes, they have been both hit hard in the short term and see a looming recession beyond the coronavirus. They will be looking to save money.