Kyle Kuzma is now a thing.
Kyle Kuzma could be a short-lived thing, a successful long-term thing, or merely a very fun thing. But without a regular-season NBA game under his belt, it feels like Kyle Kuzma has already become a lovable role player who can elicit excitement by simply taking a jump shot. “He loves to compete. It’s funny because I have to remind myself that we’re young,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said of Kuzma. “He’s been in the NBA practicing for only a week.”
On Monday night, in the middle of a sold-out Staples Center awaiting Lonzo Ball’s home preseason home debut (yes, really), you could hear the crowd call out for Kuzma, who started the game on the bench. The rousing cheer began once he checked into the game in the first quarter. The audible anticipation crescendoed when he caught the ball behind the 3-point line; the natural “Kuuuuuuuz” call from the fans echoed throughout the arena when his shot swished in, not once but twice in a matter of minutes.
It was as if a cult meant to worship its leader became captivated by one of its followers.
“He scores in bunches,” Lonzo said of his teammate. “Every time he’s out there, he’s going to give us some type of energy.”
When Lonzo left the game Monday night with a minor ankle sprain, the fervor in the building had no choice but to seek out a new idol. They already had one in Kuzma, who they’d been falling for since summer league began.
In 29 minutes Kuzma scored 23 points, including four 3s, and put up 17 points in the second half—11 in the fourth quarter—to give an otherwise dead crowd some life. The Lakers, who trailed by as much as 20 during the game, fell short against the Nuggets 113-107, but not without going out with a bang and a deepened love for someone who may turn out to be one of the steals of the draft.
“It’s only my second time in NBA competition,” said a hoodie-wearing Kuzma after the game, as if he needed to apologize for his scoring total.
There are few things that fans enjoy more than a prolific shooter. You can see a 3-pointer from its inception to its completion. The process unravels in front of you for long enough to build the anticipation and deliver appreciation once the ball goes through the net. Here is one thing that fans certainly love more than a prolific shooter: a hot one.
In Kuzma’s limited competition, he has been quite flammable. He scored 19 points in the preseason opener against the Wolves on Saturday. In Vegas, Kuzma averaged more than 21 points per game over seven contests. He shot a scorching 48 percent from 3 and 51 percent from the field. On Monday, Kuzma showed again why he fits the Lakers’ ethos. All of his 23 points came inside the paint, at the free throw line, or behind the arc.
After the game, Kuzma, who will likely not start over Julius Randle at power forward even if many will clamor for the Lonzo-Kuzma pairing, said the knock on him coming out of college in Utah was that he was not a consistent shooter (in his junior season, he shot only 32 percent from 3). So he worked on his shot. So far, it seems like his adjustments have translated into on-court improvement.
Of course, Kuzma hasn’t seen bona fide NBA competition. We don’t know if he’s the steal of the draft yet. But we have seen enough of his shot and scoring potential to wonder what it would have been like had a contending team drafted him. Ask the Warriors: a team can never have too many shooters.
By the time the regular season comes around, the Lakers will fall into expected mediocrity, and Kuzma might tumble to the fringes of the basketball universe. But for now, he’s drawn us in and captured our attention. Our poignant affection for overlooked shooters can energize a crowd with the same fervor as a team’s top pick. (When I Twitter search “kuzma,” the second suggested search term is “kuzma better than lonzo.”)
These preseason numbers likely won’t transfer identically to the regular season. But it’s hard to deny that Kuzma, as they say, has the tools. And he already has the passionate following, too.