clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Real Big Baller’s Brand: Kuzmania

Kyle Kuzma wasn’t supposed to be the rookie sensation who dominated Lakers headlines and energized their fan base, but there’s one person who isn’t shocked by the Utah product’s instant ascendence: Kyle Kuzma

Getty Images/USA Today/Ringer illustration

The breaking Lakers news was first reported in a breathless Reddit thread: “Buddy of mine is having dinner at a fancy steakhouse in LA,” a user named Ttress began, back in mid-November, before relaying the truly important information: Per Ttress’s pal, the Lakers’ glorious past, Kobe Bryant, and the team’s bright future, rookie sensation Kyle Kuzma, were there having dinner that night, too. “Don’t wanna jump to any conclusions,” the post wrapped, “but this just may be definite proof that Kobe himself is infusing future Laker GOAT blood into our beautiful rookie.”

Such an over-the-top, googly-eyed reaction was entirely of a piece with the beginning of this Los Angeles Lakers season, during which a first-year player earned widespread attention and adoration, was discussed in the same breath as Magic Johnson, inspired the NFL’s Richard Sherman to rep his jersey, briefly got caught up in and then ascended from Lil B purgatory — and did all that without even being named Lonzo Ball. In a few short months, 22-year-old power forward Kuzma went from being considered at best a low second-round pick out of the University of Utah to being selected 27th overall in the 2017 NBA draft. He turned heads and earned championship game MVP honors at summer league in Las Vegas, then added the Western Conference’s Rookie of the Month honors for November to his growing list of accolades. Now, 36 games into the Lakers’ season, he leads the team in scoring thanks to his old-timey running skyhooks, his aggressive 3-point shooting, and an infectious confidence that has fed a phenomenon called Kuzmania.

It was enough to inspire Bryant to relay from his musecage the message — via his good pal, former power agent, and new Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka — that Kuzma ought to shoot the Mamba a text sometime. “I wasn’t nervous,” Kuzma later told The Players’ Tribune, “I’m just really anxious to meet him and talk to him and really just pick his brain.” At dinner, Kuzma ordered a ribeye (“I kept it light,” he told reporters eagerly digging for scraps from the meal two days later at a Lakers shootaround) while Bryant ate a porterhouse, “the big-dog steak,” and nearby lookie-loos lit up Reddit.

The man date capped off a busy day for Kuzma, one that also involved excited narration on another internet platform. Earlier that afternoon, at the Santa Monica headquarters of the video-game company Activision, Kuzma and his teammate Larry Nance Jr. sit next to each other on a sofa in front of a panel of widescreens while a weird and wonderful contingent of online observers on the gaming livestream hub Twitch watch them play the newly released Call of Duty: WWII and weigh in via chat.

“I want Kuzma to be my dad,” pleads one commenter. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the baby-faced Kuzma replies aloud, amiably taken aback, and then another message from another user shows up: “Kuzma IS my dad!” Nance looks at Kuzma and smirks. “Aren’t you a bit young for that?” Nance says, and he’s got a point: It’s far more typical to hear Lakers fans this season refer to Kuzma not as their father, but as their adopted, or first-born, or beautiful son.

There was an air of newfound excitement surrounding the Lakers heading into this season, based on a roster full of guys born in the mid-to-late ’90s and brimming with potential, like the 20-year-old small forward Brandon Ingram, who was taken second in the 2016 draft; and the aptly named Ball, who was also selected second just a few months back; and 2014 seventh overall pick Julius Randle, a forward and center. Of course, this many lottery picks speak to the Lakers’ struggles in the recent past, and of the team’s need to redefine and reestablish itself following Bryant’s retirement in 2016.

The hoped-for Lakers renaissance hasn’t exactly happened quite yet. The team has so far stumbled to an 11–25 record that puts it in the Western Conference basement and has turned trade rumors and possible offseason free-agency moves into more relevant conversation than game recaps are these days. Still, there’s plenty to be excited about: the continued improvement of Ball after a tough, under-the-microscope start to the season; the upside of Ingram, whose already-dangerous rim presence can only improve once he grows out of his stringbean stage; and the largely unanticipated rise of Kuzma, with his 6-foot-9 height, 7-foot wingspan, and boundless conviction both in what he has already done this season and what he can do going forward.

“Kyle, I want to be just like you one day,” writes a Twitch user named SteveW as Kuzma and Nance click and clack away at their PlayStation 4 Pro controllers while an Activision employee reads selected comments out loud. “Everybody doubting you, and you’ve proven them wrong.”

“I appreciate that,” Kuzma says in response. “Hard work. Confidence.”

Nance looks nauseated by the lovefest and takes aim with his virtual weapon, an STG-44 gun. “I’m doubting you in this game right here,” he says.

Larry Nancy Jr. and Kyle Kuzma play Call of Duty: WWII in an event for Activision
Getty Images for Activision

Nance, a third-year Laker, is holding his controller in a soft-splinted left hand. Two weeks earlier, on November 2, he went up for a block against the Portland Trail Blazers and fractured his second metacarpal bone — “I don’t know what the metacarpals are,” he says; “my pointer finger, I broke my pointer finger, and I had surgery” — but during the healing process he hasn’t shied away from the video games he loves so much that he may or may not own multiple special gaming chairs. “Some of the best rehab I did was playing Call of Duty,” Nance deadpans. “My surgeon prescribed that specifically.”

Nance’s injury opened up a spot in the young Lakers’ starting lineup that Kuzma, after a splashy preseason and a 15-point average through eight games, slid into. “We’re good friends,” Kuzma says of Nance, “and once he got hurt, he was like, ‘Your turn to shine.’” In Kuzma’s first start, against Brooklyn, he went 8-of-11 from the field for 21 points and added 13 rebounds. In subsequent starts, he sank 3-pointers and converted long passes from Ball and showed off a collection of moves in the paint from a bygone era, including one graceful move over Joel Embiid on November 15 that highlighted Kuzma’s impressive length and creativity.

Nance, his hand healed, resumed his starting role on November 27 for nine games. But Kuzma replaced him again in late December and has held on to the role in the eight contests since. Through the 35 games in which he’s seen action, Kuzma has averaged more than 32 minutes on the court, shot 47 percent from the field, and attempted more than five 3-pointers per game. “What are his tendencies?” asks teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who sits a couple of seats down from Kuzma in the Lakers locker room and likes to banter with the first-year player. “Get buckets. That’s what he does. And he does that pretty well.” Kuzma currently leads the Lakers with an average of 17.5 points. The last Lakers rookie to average at least 15 points per game? Current team president of basketball operations Magic Johnson.

Johnson’s eminently recognizable face was what greeted Kuzma when the draft prospect walked into his interview with the Lakers at the NBA combine in the spring. “I walked in and Magic was the first person I saw,” Kuzma says, “and it was kind of like, ‘Whoa, Magic.’ Most of those interviews that I’ve had, they come in serious, trying to be bad cops in a way. But the Lakers interview, it was all positive vibes. The room had a lot of good energy. That’s how the organization is as a whole.” The experience left Kuzma with a hopeful feeling about his potential to be a Laker, even as the consensus opinion surrounding him did not involve being selected in the first round.

Kuzma’s optimism about his own future in basketball dates back to when he was a kid telling his teachers in Flint, Michigan, that he’d play in the NBA one day. Kuzma grew up the oldest of three kids raised by Karri Kuzma as a single mom, and in an interview with the Lakers’ team reporter, Mike Trudell, Kuzma estimated that his family “probably moved 14 times before I was 16” in and around Flint. (His mom worked at businesses ranging from a video store to an Italian restaurant to a General Motors assembly line, he said.) Kuzma spent as much of his time as he could hanging around a local YMCA basketball court. He loved the Pistons and Tayshaun Prince. He played some football — quarterback — until his freshman year of high school. (He estimates that he was still 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 at this point.) A former coach tweeted that he came off the JV bench as a sophomore at Swartz Creek High School.

By his junior season, spent at Burton Bentley High School, a Class C school in a suburb of Flint, he began sending videotapes of himself playing at the Y to prep schools from California to Pennsylvania, hoping to have a better shot of being noticed and wanting some remove from the high crime rate in his hometown. He had grown to 6-foot-6 by the time he moved away to Rise Academy, an unaccredited basketball-focused program in Philadelphia. (When Kuzma talks about his steady growth spurt, Nance recalls his own: “I was 5–10 as a freshman but had size 16 in feet,” he says. “Damn!” Kuzma sputters. “That’s tough. That’s awkward. That’s clumsy.”) Vin Sparacio was the basketball coach at Rise Academy when he received a tape from Kuzma, and says he couldn’t pass up a 6-foot-6 prospect. But he laughs as he remembers Kuzma’s early days on the team in 2012.

“I couldn’t stand him,” says Sparacio, who now lives in Los Angeles and is Kuzma’s manager. (Kuzma has also been represented by Priority Sports since May 2017.) “At the time, he was a young kid, coming from Flint, who was like 6–6, 170 pounds. Soft. Played at the 3-point line, didn’t want to rebound, didn’t want to go in the weight room, but he was always thinking big — he wanted to talk to D-I coaches. I said, ‘You gotta do this, this, and this first.’” For Kuzma, being away from home for the first time, a time when he juggled increasing independence and on-court improvement, accelerated his development beyond basketball. And it didn’t escape him that he was holding his own, and even excelling, against the heightened competition he was facing at Rise.

“I had a lot of growth,” Kuzma says. “It was the first time on my own, I didn’t have a lot of money there, and I had to really balance out a lot of things. I really found myself there in a way. Just how good I could be — being there really helped me see that.” Sparacio helped Kuzma obtain a GED so he could academically qualify for the NCAA, and Kuzma’s prep season earned him four-star prospect recognition and ultimately yielded offers from schools like UConn and Missouri. But he decided on Utah, which had been the first big-conference school to extend him an offer, something that “kind of stuck with me as I kept tabs on the pros and cons of all the schools,” he told 24/7 Sports in 2013; he also pointed to a strong relationship with the coaching staff and the prospect of playing time early in his career. When he arrived, he had grown to 6-foot-9. After a redshirt year, he averaged only eight minutes per game for the Utes in his first season in 2014–15. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak constantly harped on him for defensive miscues and botched schemes. “Every practice,” Kyle Goon wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune, “he was made to feel like the runt of the class.” Utah assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum told the Tribune that Kuzma “would come in and sit in my office and dang near be in tears.”

Kuzma contemplated a transfer, but ultimately stuck with the Utes, spending three seasons with the program. “When coaches are on you, that means they care about you,” he says now. “For me, my coach was on me 24/7. That’s a good thing. I know how to take criticism, I know how to put that criticism in a positive light. It means a lot to me. I may not be the best player in the NBA right now, I may not be the most skilled, but I want to be one of the top workers in the league.” Sparacio says that after Utes games, Kuzma would “go right back out there on the court and practice — he’d be out there till 1, 1:30 in the morning.”

Years later, as he plays Call of Duty: WWII and answers questions from the livestream, Kuzma’s early Utah experience feels newly relevant. “I just started high school ball,” a fan writes in on Twitch. “Any advice? The coach seems to hate me.” Kuzma sucks in his breath, shakes his head, and says, “Oooh, let’s see. Work as hard as possible, and you’ve got to get on the coach’s good side. That’s number one.” How does one get on the coach’s good side, an Activision employee prompts? “Defense,” Kuzma says right away. “Defense. Play defense, and play hard.”

Still, in the months leading up to the draft, the knock on Kuzma from scouts who saw him play in college went beyond his defense: His shooting form wasn’t particularly inspiring, and his 63 percent free throw mark was concerning. Several on the Lakers staff, however, saw things differently, most notably scout Bill Bertka, now 90. Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that Bertka’s reaction after watching Kuzma play in the Pac-12 tournament was: “If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f --- I’m looking at.” The team also noticed an improvement in Kuzma’s long-range shooting during his junior season: After hitting 25 percent from beyond the arc in his first 15 games that year, he shot 42 percent in his final 14 games. As Buss explained in an interview with NBA.com, his staff was impressed by his mechanics in pre-draft workouts and his demeanor in his combine interview, and felt that his overall collegiate numbers didn’t tell the full story. On the first day at the NBA combine, Kuzma scored 20 points in five-on-five play on 8-of-10 shooting, hitting 4-of-5 from 3-point range.

While the NBA invites the top 20 or so draft prospects to the on-location greenroom, Kuzma was not one of them. It was raining in the Flint suburb of Burton on the night of the event, which meant that the sprawling contingent of family, friends, and “just random people” who showed up for a “community-type barbecue” wound up “crammed in” his family friend’s house, Kuzma recalls. “It was, like, 100 degrees in the house because of that,” he says. When the Lakers announced a trade with the Brooklyn Nets that sent 2015 second-overall pick D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov in return for Brook Lopez and Kuzma, whom Brooklyn had selected 27th, Kuzma was elated, but, in typical fashion, not really surprised. Browsing mock drafts, he had seen listed players whom he believed weren’t as good as he was. And he suspected the Lakers might agree.

“They had seen me a lot in college,” he says. “Saw me at the combine. I had a good interview with those guys in the front office. Then had a workout here with the Lakers, and did pretty well there, too. They were pretty familiar with me.”

On December 20, on the road in Houston, Kuzma put up a career-high 38 points in a Lakers win over the Rockets, a performance that included seven rebounds, four assists, and 7-for-10 shooting from behind the 3-point line and gave Houston a taste of its own long-ball medicine. After the game, when Trudell asked Kuzma if he expected to have games like this one, the rookie just nodded, looking almost perplexed by the nature of the question. “Oh yeah,” he said simply. “No problem.”

Part of what has drawn Lakers fans to Kuzma is his attitude toward his own play: confident in a way that comes across not as brash or obnoxious but as just-being-honest. Kuzma’s self-assessment after the win over the Rockets even prompted a satisfied tweet from his new buddy the Black Mamba himself, who linked to a still of the interview with a simple biceps-flex emoji. Kuzma retweeted this, but it was a shout-out from the L.A. Sparks’ Candace Parker that seemed to bring Kuzma, a self-described basketball nerd, even greater delight: Not only did he bring it up during an ESPN Radio interview the next day, gushing that he’d been a big fan of Parker’s going back to her Lady Vols days, he retweeted it with the comment “Goat!”

No lack of confidence in @kuzmakyle. He finished with 38 pts, 7 reb & 4 ast.

A post shared by Spectrum SportsNet (@spectrumsportsnet) on

Five days later, in front of a national audience on Christmas Day, Kuzma’s 31 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves became the most by a rookie on Christmas since a young, skinny LeBron James scored 34 in 2003. “Of course it’s cool,” Kuzma told reporters after the game, a Lakers loss. “But at the same time, I expect to do all of this. I work hard, I feel like I should be doing all of this, so it’s not like a surprising-type feel.” The muted response was reminiscent of one he’d given in November, when he put up a then-career-high 30 points as Los Angeles lost to Phoenix. “It’s cool,” he said following that game, “but I’m a winner. I like to win. Stats don’t really matter to me.”

If there’s one thing that has exceeded Kuzma’s expectations, it’s the leeway his head coach, Luke Walton, has given him and his young teammates, allowing them to make decisions even when it means making mistakes. “Luke does a great job instilling confidence in his players,” Kuzma says. “From the jump, I was expecting to play as well as I am, but not the amount [of playing time] or how much confidence that he has in me.” He adds, approvingly, that he’s been able to call plays on the fly, though Walton’s perspective on that is a little bit different.

“He called his own play once,” Walton recalled to reporters with a look of bemusement, “and I thought ’Zo was calling it until I saw what they ran, and it was definitely Kyle calling it — it was for him to get a 3-point shot.” Ball had a similarly droll response that day when asked about Kuzma’s attempts at play-calling. “He be calling plays for his-self a lot,” he told reporters. “I just don’t be running them.”

Ball and Kuzma played against each other once back in college, an 83–82 UCLA win — “I don’t even remember him when we played him,” Ball said in September, although Kuzma scored 15 points in that game — and it was in summer league in Las Vegas that they first hit the court together. It didn’t take long for them to click, with Ball throwing long, football-like outlet passes to Kuzma and Kuzma dazzling onlookers with the way he could finish the plays. The two routinely “mess around at practice,” Kuzma says, whether it’s in games of one-on-one or half-court shots or free throw contests. (They recently lost a shooting contest to coaches Walton and Brian Shaw.) But playing alongside Ball has had positive ramifications for Kuzma in other ways, too.

The two rookies entered this season with wildly divergent expectations based on their recent histories: the Big Baller who spent just one year at UCLA and was hyped by his father as being better than Stephen Curry versus the three-year Ute who had existed mainly under the radar and had a good deal of room for improvement. When Ball struggled at the start of the season, it drew unrelenting attention — so much so that Kuzma wound up defending his more famous teammate, sounding like a grizzled veteran in the process. “Everyone in the country wants him to be a Hall of Famer right now, wants him to be an All-Star right now,” he told reporters in November. “But he’s still a rookie. It’s tough to play at this level for anybody. There’s 10-year vets that play worse than he does, and nobody talks about it.”

As if to prove this point, when Ball showed up at practice a day later with his previously long hair shorn down close to his head, the aesthetic change became national news. The ESPN app sent out a push alert about the new ’do. Walton had to field several questions on the subject (“I always like a good fresh haircut,” he said during a media session at one point) and Ball, to his credit, kept his cool as he was peppered with one inquiry after another about the when, where, and why of his decision to change his look. “It’s just a haircut, man,” was one patient response. “You grow your hair out, and at a certain point it gets too long. It was [at] that point,” was another.

In a Q&A with Lakers fans, Kuzma affectionately called Ball “a clown, definitely a clown … he’s very serious and monotone in interviews and on the court, but off the court he’s always laughing, dancing, acts like he’s 13 … loose. A loose cannon.” (When Trudell said that this description sounded more like Lonzo’s youngest brother, LaMelo, Kuzma’s eyes got wide in agreement. “Oh, he’s a different story,” he said. “I wouldn’t even call him loose — I wouldn’t even know what to call him.”) The two players make an alluring pair on and off the court. An Instagram story Ball posted during a drive-through trip to Whataburger, in which Kuzma asked the cashier to “throw some cheese on it,” enthralled fans and led to a genre Reddit thread in which one commenter sighed, dreamily: “That giggle and look back at Zo. Better love story than Twilight.”

In recent weeks, before being sidelined by injury, Ball had started recovering his on-court vision and prime-time potential: His performance during a wild two-minute stretch on the road at Madison Square Garden even had Spike Lee out of his seat to give props to Ball family patriarch LaVar. But from the outset, the amount of exhausting attention focused on the no. 2 pick from the brash, flashy family has enabled Kuzma to develop in relative peace. “He obviously, I think, had a lot more freedom to just come in and play basketball,” Walton replied when I asked about how Kuzma’s early experience differed from his fellow rookie’s, “because no one knew who he was, and no one expected anything from him. That doesn’t make it easy — I still give the young man a lot of credit, and he still works extremely hard and takes advantage of this opportunity — but I’m sure that the path to this point has been a little easier. I’m sure it’ll get tougher for him.”

It may be starting to. Since his 31-point Christmas performance, Kuzma has scored 13 or fewer points in three of his past four games, and while he’s been battling a thigh contusion, the timing — right around as many games as a Utah Utes season — has prompted questions about whether he’s hitting some sort of rookie wall. The Lakers’ dismal record certainly hasn’t helped general morale: Late last week, it was reported that the players and coaching staff had held a team meeting (Kuzma characterized it to the media as a “heart-to-heart”) to address various issues plaguing the squad, from logistical gripes about minutes and rotation to more conceptual malaise over the weirdness of being part of a franchise that is widely expected to attempt big, sweeping, [cough]LeBronJamesAndHisWifeRecentlyCheckedOutHighSchoolsInL.A.[cough]-style free-agency changes in the coming offseason, a business plan that will necessarily obviate the presence of multiple guys on the team — guys like Randle, or Jordan Clarkson, or Nance, who has lately seen his minutes decline as Kuzma has thrived in the starting role.

Nance, though, brings a defensive reliability that Kuzma has yet to develop, regardless of how much the rookie talks about the importance of improving that part of his game. (In particular, Kuzma admits that he needs to shore up his switching and off-ball defense.) Kuzma has already guarded the likes of James Harden and singles out Giannis Antetokounmpo as someone whom he particularly enjoyed matching up with and learned from. “He’s killing the league right now,” he says. “He’s just a really tough [player to] guard; he’s 7-foot and can move like a guard. He’s fast, and he’s strong. … I didn’t expect him to be that strong.” He pauses, then adds: “Not saying I was overwhelmed by him.”

Two weeks ago, when Jacob Goldstein, a contributor to stat-heavy basketball analysis publications, released the results of a model he’d built to assess the potential of the 23-and-under stars in the league, Kuzma’s defensive stats — and Goldstein’s skepticism about whether they’re likely to significantly improve, given his age — dragged him way down to 44th on the list. But while off-ball defense and shooting form may be very different beasts, Kuzma has shown a real hoophead ability to study and iterate. (“He’s a gym rat,” Ball told reporters. “He’s always working out. You can tell in his game.”) When it came to his shot, for example, Kuzma says that after leaving Utah he sat by himself and watched endless footage of his mechanics. Goldstein did point out that one of his model’s inputs for rookies involves a player’s projection out of college — and in Kuzma’s case, those assumptions already look stale.

And one of Kuzma’s longtime trainers, Clint Parks, pointed out on a Lakers Nation podcast that for a player like him, who has such a maniacal work ethic, leaving college can open up all sorts of opportunities to improve simply by clearing his schedule. “All hoops, all day,” Parks said. “No class, no study hall, no nothing. Just strictly basketball. For a hooper and someone who loves the game like him, that’s a player’s dream — he’s not worrying about some sociology test. … Just come in, worry about your game.”

As he battles Nance in one-on-one mode on the Twitch livestream, Kuzma is getting a little too worried about someone else’s game. “Stop looking at my screen!” Nance screams at his teammate more than once. “Don’t be a screen-looker!” Over the course of the early evening, the two players bicker back and forth about college basketball (Kuzma makes fun of Nance for attending rodeos at the University of Wyoming), favorite basketball-inspired content (“I’m a big Love & Basketball guy,” Kuzma says, also raving about a ’70s TV series called The White Shadow that Nance hasn’t heard of), and rookie hazing techniques. (“I would be furious if someone popcorned my car, especially if it’s buttered,” Nance says. “Oh yeah, and I got leather seats, too, so that’d be tough,” Kuzma agrees. “Oh, you proud of yourself?” Nance says, mockingly. “Leather seats?”) Every time Kuzma loses a battle, he requests “one more, one more” — at one point declaring, despite being behind on the scoreboard, that the next one is “winner take all.”

He’s similarly hypercompetitive on non–Call of Duty PlayStation entertainment: Kuzma prefers to play only as himself on the video game NBA 2K, though he has some complaints about his virtual guy. “He’s not very fast in the game,” he says. (Kuzma’s overall 2K rating has improved from 72 at the start of the season to 79, currently tops on the team.) “I feel like in person I’m a little bit faster. And he loses the ball a lot when he dribbles. I have a little bit more handle than that.” (Kuzma’s “Ball Control” and “Speed With Ball” attributes are currently a 77 and a 70, respectively, as compared to average scores of 60 and 58 for players at his position.)

“And he’s ugly,” Nance adds.

“Whoa,” Kuzma says, nodding his head at Nance. “His guy just dunks, and it’s not very fun to play when you just dunk.”

With Staples Center hosting the All-Star Game this February, Lakers team owner Jeanie Buss said on the Forbes Sports Money podcast in March that it would “break [her] heart” to not have a player on the roster. Right now, though, the team’s best bets are more likely to appear in the auxiliary events. It seems like a lock that Kuzma and Ball will play in the first- and second-year players’ Rising Stars game, for example. Is it also possible that Nance (if he’s still a Laker) could make the dunk contest?

“That’s a favorite question among everybody,” Nance says. “It’s in L.A.! I feel like it’s only right!” adds Kuzma, with sincere encouragement. “I feel like you shouldn’t comment on my happenings,” Nance replies. As for Kuzma, could he show up in the 3-point contest that weekend? “I’m a pretty good shooter,” he told reporters. “I’ve been shooting really well, consistently. It would definitely be cool.” And what about the marquee event, the All-Star Game? At least one observer thinks he definitely belongs on the court for that: team broadcaster Mychal Thompson, father to the Warriors’ Klay, and himself a two-time NBA champion with the Lakers.

It’s unlikely, considering how stacked the NBA’s Western Conference is with veteran stars, but if Kuzma has proved anything in his young career, it’s that he has a way of surpassing expectations — and then making the most of the opportunity once he does. It’s not too hard to imagine him lighting up the All-Star Game, being interviewed afterward, and responding with his usual mix of serenity and swagger. Oh yeah, he’ll say when asked whether he ever expected he’d be out there, on that stage, playing that well. No problem. Maybe Bryant will even tweet it.

“A lot of GMs are kicking themselves over that one,” Bryant said about Kuzma in a recent interview with Spectrum SportsNet. “He’s extremely articulate and very inquisitive. I think that’s always the best trait to have, is curiosity. … When you have that kind of curiosity, you’re constantly seeking for ways to improve mentally, physically.” Yes, Bryant’s personal and professional ties with the Lakers and their general manager might make him a biased observer, but the man typically doesn’t align himself with just anyone. “Hey, listen,” Bryant continued. “If he keeps playing well, and continues to improve? The next time we go out, he’ll treat me.” And whenever that happens, an enthusiastic, Kuzmaniac Lakers Nation will undoubtedly be there to immediately spread the good word.

Real Ones

Examining COVID-19 Protocol Negotiations in the NBA and Athlete Activism

NBA

A Crucial Season for Zion and the Pelicans Is Starting on the Wrong Foot

2021-22 NBA Preview

The Eight Big Questions Looming Over NBA Training Camps

View all stories in NBA