On the night of the 2017 NBA draft, the Los Angeles Lakers added two first-round selections that turned plenty of heads. Lonzo Ball, one of the most hyped up prospects in the draft class, was picked by Los Angeles No. 2 overall. Then, to close the first round, Josh Hart was drafted by the Utah Jazz and traded to the Lakers. Hart was very popular after starring at Villanova and winning the 2016 NCAA Championship.
Fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma didn’t receive nearly as much fanfare when he joined the Lakers, and it’s easy to see why he flew under the radar. He played for a relatively small program (Utah) and didn’t put up monster numbers. In fact, some projections had Kuzma going in the second-round or undrafted. However, Kuzma was selected with the No. 27 pick that belonged to the Brooklyn Nets, but he was dealt to the Lakers as part of the trade that also sent Brook Lopez to L.A. in exchange for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov. So not only were fans of the Purple and Gold focused primarily on the selections of Ball and Hart, they were distracted by the big names involved in the blockbuster trade (Lopez and Russell) while viewing Kuzma as a smaller acquisition from the deal.
Well, at the All-Star break, Kuzma has exceeded all expectations and emerged as one of this year’s best rookies. He is averaging 15.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from three-point range. He’s the Lakers’ second-leading scorer and he’s third among all NBA rookies, trailing only Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons.
It’s also worth noting that he may continue to produce even more after the All-Star break. The departure of Larry Nance Jr. should lead to more minutes for Kuzma in the frontcourt and Jordan Clarkson‘s exit should result in more touches too. And when Kuzma has been given a bigger role, he has thrived. In 21 games as a starter this season, he’s averaged 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 assists, while knocking down more threes and improving his percentage from long distance to 40.3 percent.
HoopsHype caught up with Kuzma to discuss how his life has changed since becoming a Laker, his relationship with Ball, how he reacted to seeing Nance Jr. and Clarkson traded, the Lakers’ pursuit of star free agents this summer and much more.
The Lakers recently traded Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson prior to the deadline, so that’s sort of an introduction to the business side of the NBA for you. I know you were close to Larry and Jordan, so what was your reaction to that deal and how tough is it to see a move like that go down?
Kyle Kuzma: It was definitely different. We come from college basketball where there’s a lot of [talk of] “camaraderie” and “rah-rah team” and “brothers.” Then, you get to the NBA and it’s a little bit different. It’s all about business. So one day you may be saying all of that stuff, but then the next day, you may get traded. It was definitely an introduction to the business side [of the league] – we were all close to those guys. Hopefully we get to see them do well.
You mentioned the difference between college and the NBA. It seems your game is better suited for the NBA and you’ve been able to produce more at this level. What are the biggest differences on the court between college and the NBA, and why do you think you’ve been able to thrive in the league?
KK: I think it’s just because I’ve been able to shoot the ball more – and shoot it better. I’m shooting the three-ball a lot better than I did in college, which has really opened up my entire game. When I’m shooting well, it makes it easier to drive and attack the rim against close-outs and things like. I think my three-ball falling has really been the main thing that has helped me [in the NBA].
As far as the biggest differences on the court, I’d say the strength of all the players. Everyone is a lot stronger; I’d have to say that’s the biggest thing.
How much has your life changed since you’ve become a Laker. I’ve talked to a lot of Lakers over the years about their wild stories. I know it becomes tough to go out, you have crazy fan interactions, you suddenly have celebrity friends and things like that. What’s the craziest thing about your life now?
KK: I’d say it’s the people I’ve gotten the chance to meet. It’s not like it’s on a daily basis, but I get to meet famous people very often. It’s crazy being cool with guys like Drake and Floyd Mayweather and so on and so forth – all of these prestigious people. Getting the opportunity to meet them and then befriend them too has been pretty cool.
You’ve developed a friendship with Lonzo Ball and you guys are often mentioned together since you’re both rookies on the Lakers. How nice is it to go through this journey with someone around the same age as you and who can relate to your experiences?
KK: It’s really cool. It’s always good to have another rookie on the team, someone you can always go to who may have some of the same problems that you’re dealing with and who understands everything about the [situation]. I like it a lot, and it helps that we’re good friends.
Is there a specific defender who locked you down and made life really difficult for you?
KK: I’d say Trevor Ariza. I think Trevor Ariza is a really good defender. We had a game against the Rockets where I had 38 points and there was a point when they stuck him on me and it [got tougher to score]. I was like, ‘Wow, he’s a good defender.’ It’s tough to get shots off against him, and he does a lot of little things to make things harder on you.
You get compared to a lot of players, but who do you study or model your game after?
KK: I try to look at everybody. I watch a lot of stuff from Kobe. I look at Kevin Durant a lot. I look at LaMarcus Aldridge’s post-ups. It’s a mixture of players [that I model my game after]. I wouldn’t say I’m similar to one particular person. I have multiple skills and I try to study everybody.
You had dinner with Kobe Bryant recently and got the chance to pick his brain a bit. There was some talk about you possibly training with Kobe during the offseason too? Is that something you’re planning to do or something you’re interested in doing?
KK: I’m not sure yet. If the opportunity presents itself, it potentially may happen.
You’re part of a young, up-and-coming core. When you guys reach your full potential, how good could this team be?
KK: We can be really good. We’re really talented and young. Brandon Ingram is getting really good and gets better each and every game. Once we get Lonzo back in the fold, he’ll get some more experience, which is good. I think we can be great.
One of the biggest storylines of the trade deadline was the fact that you guys cleared two max-salary spots. As a player, I know you mainly focus on your own game and what you can control, but how exciting is it that you guys could potentially add two star players this summer?
KK: I mean, it would be great. We already have a great young core. If we can add stars or just anybody who could help our young core grow, that would be great. It would be good for our future and good for our organization. We’d get back to contending, for sure.