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.”

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.

PBT Podcast: Timberwolves without KAT, get Luka some help

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Minnesota has stumbled out of the gate this season, and now they will be without Karl-Anthony Towns for around a month with a calf strain. Just how much trouble are the Timberwolves in?

Corey Robinson from NBC Sports and myself discuss that and then get into Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s Team USA vs. Team World matchup — does Evan Fournier get the world team in trouble? Who guards whom?

From there, it’s time for Corey’s Jukebox and some New Orleans jazz for Zion Williamson. Some Mavericks’ talk follows that — Dallas has put a big load on the shoulders of Luka Doncic, and while he’s playing like an MVP it’s a long-term concern for the Mavericks and their fans.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

LeBron calls out reporters for asking him about Kyrie Irving but not Jerry Jones

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Within days of Kyrie Irving being suspended by the Nets in the wake of a Tweet promoting an antisemitic film (and his initial refusal to apologize for it), Irving’s former teammate LeBron James was asked about it. He had to deal with the controversy, saying, “I don’t condone any hate to any kind. To any race.”

At the end of his press conference Wednesday night after the Lakers beat the Trail Blazers, LeBron scolded the assembled press for not asking him about the 1957 photo that surfaced of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones outside North Little Rock High School while white students protested the integration of the school when they had been quick to ask about Irving.

“When I watched Kyrie talk, and he says, `I know who I am, but I want to keep the same energy when we’re talking about my people and the things they’ve been through,’ and that Jerry Jones photo is one of those moments that our people, Black people, have been through in America. And I feel like as a Black man, as a Black athlete, someone with power and with a platform, when we do something wrong or something that people don’t agree with, it’s on every single tabloid, every single news coverage. It’s on the bottom ticker. It’s asked about every single day.

“But it seems like to me that the whole Jerry Jones situation, the photo, and I know it was years and years ago, and we all make mistakes, I get it. It seems like it’s just been buried under, like, `Oh, it happened. OK. We just move on.’ And I was just kind of disappointed that I haven’t received that question from you guys.”

Irving and LeBron were teammates in Cleveland and won a ring together, there was a direct connection (plus Irving had been linked to the Lakers in trade rumors over the summer).

However, there was a connection between LeBron and the Cowboys as well. LeBron was for many years a very public Cowboys fan (despite growing up in Browns territory). It came up as recently as October, when LeBron was on Instagram Live promoting his HBO show with Maverick Carter “The Shop” and he said he had stopped rooting for the Cowboys in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests, “There’s just a lot of things that were going on when guys were kneeling. Guys were having freedom of speech and wanting to do it in a very peaceful manner…. The organization was like, ‘If you do that around here, then you will never play for this franchise again.’ I just didn’t think that was appropriate.”

When asked about the photo, Jones said he was a curious 14-year-old who was watching and didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment or situation.