How Kyle Kuzma has emerged as a potential Lakers cornerstone

LOS ANGELES — The car would halt in front of his hometown YMCA while growing up, and Kyle Kuzma would wish his mother a nice day. Karri Kuzma identified her son’s basketball passion at an early age, and so the dropoffs became normal and frequent. Karri commuted to her job, while Kyle logged hours in his home away from home, a safety net in Flint, Michigan. Kyle Kuzma understood these daily trips to the Y meant he had no choice but to spend his day inside the gym.

“I was a young kid and the YMCA was my second home, where my mom was dropping me off for seven, eight hours,” Kuzma told The Vertical. “I’d spend the day doing what I love: hoop. I’m talented, but my work ethic has pushed me over the top. First and foremost, I had a love for the game. I cherish being on the court, and I really love watching basketball, women’s basketball, whatever it is. In my environment, not many people make it out of Flint, where my mom had to work so hard, and I had to work on my game because I knew I was pretty special — and I had to do something with it.

“I had to do something to make it out. I had no choice.”

Kyle Kuzma has three 20-point games this season. (AP)

Around the Los Angeles Lakers, his success as a potential cornerstone alongside Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram is a credit to his dedication and a determined mindset from his life’s journey. In a talented and deep draft full of prospects, Kuzma has become one of the most impressive of them all — a versatile forward with the ability to score inside and outside, pass and handle the ball, and defend and rebound. In 10 games so far, Kuzma has three 20-point games and three double-doubles and is now starting in place of the injured Larry Nance Jr. With the league increasingly valuing positional flexibility, Kuzma translates and has performed better than few imagined. “In today’s game, I feel my talents and abilities work perfectly at any position,” Kuzma told The Vertical.

The process that led Kuzma to these Lakers started with him declaring for the NBA draft without an agent after his junior season at Utah, and soon workouts commenced. Kuzma’s stock began to rise at the combine in Chicago where he stopped playing after an impressive first day of five-on-five scrimmages and also interviewed with the Lakers’ brass. It continued at his agency Priority Sports’ pro day in early June in Chicago, which was attended by Lakers GM Rob Pelinka and assistant GM Jesse Buss, and a workout for the team in El Segundo in the days to come further solidified his standing.

Looking back, Kuzma remembers the major matchups in college, the breakout games, including his 21-point, eight-rebound performance against Duke in December 2015 that gave him thoughts about leaving school as a sophomore. All those workouts at the YMCA in his hometown transitioned into structure when he connected with his trainer, Clint Parks, during his redshirt season at Utah in 2013-14. Along the way, Kuzma has remained inquisitive, a 6-foot-9 player who asks people around him about their craft and looked within to improve his own.

“Everyone said I would be a second-round pick or undrafted guy, that’s all I heard coming to the draft, but I had a higher faith,” Kuzma told The Vertical. “I knew I was way better than that, better than how people pegged me. After I killed draft workouts and the combine, I knew I would go in the first round. I had a good hint that it would be L.A., just because of the workout and my combine interview with them, but I didn’t know until draft night. I know there’s a lot more work for us to do, but I couldn’t have landed in a better situation and I had to take advantage.”

The Lakers’ selection of Kuzma with the No. 27 overall pick came to fruition not only because of scouting but luck, as well. There were several teams eyeing Kuzma late in the first round, but president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and the team’s decision makers landed an impressive player to round out a promising rookie group that also includes Ball, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant.

Kyle Kuzma, right, dunks on Grizzlies center Marc Gasol during Sunday’s Lakers win. (AP)

“We all felt Kyle gave us the architect of what we want in a player: the toughness, the grit, the versatility being able to play and defend multiple spots, and playing the positionless basketball we do under Coach [Luke] Walton,” Pelinka told The Vertical. “Kyle was the perfect selection for us there.” Pelinka and Johnson had spent time studying Kuzma’s game once they were hired last season, and the other members of the Lakers’ brass had traveled to scout Kuzma multiple times over his three seasons at Utah, giving the franchise a full scope of his game.

“You’re going to have different consensuses in the room on picks, but once the selection came to us, Kyle was our pick,” Buss told The Vertical. “Not everyone is going to agree on draft night, but we valued our scouting staff and vision in selecting Kyle.”

For these Lakers, the most critical connection came between Kuzma and Ball in summer league, when Ball’s vision and passing meshed with Kuzma’s cutting and end-to-end running. Ball’s playing style clearly impacted the Lakers, rubbing off on each of his teammates, with Kuzma learning early that his point guard favors elevating his teammates and creating scoring opportunities for everyone. They remember their first run together during Kuzma’s first day back in the Lakers’ facility the week following the draft in late June, a physical practice against veterans on the team.

“We had an open-gym scrimmage, me and Zo were on the same team, and we were killing guys,” Kuzma told The Vertical with a smile. “We were the only rookies in this open-gym setting, and I was running the floor and Zo was hitting me, making our connection. That clinched it for us, our connection. Zo had a lot of hype in college, so of course I knew who he is, but when I watched him he made that team better. The prior year, UCLA won [15] games. Then they went to the Sweet Sixteen mostly by adding him.

“I knew he had a special ability about him. We clicked pretty instantly, and the bond we built is really going to help us on the court.”

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