After Kyle Kuzma lit up the Las Vegas Summer League, it’s fair to ask how many NBA teams were wondering why they didn’t say his name to commissioner Adam Silver on draft night.
Kuzma dropped 30 points in the championship game – to receive game MVP honors, naturally – and was terrific in Sin City. He averaged 21.9 points per game, good for fourth overall in Vegas, and did so efficiently (51.4 percent field goals) while draining 24 3-pointers (48.0 percent).
The 6-foot-9 forward out of Utah wasn’t projected to go as high as No. 27 on the various draft boards, so why, exactly, did the Lakers select him at No. 27?
Well, earlier this summer, Lakers Director of Scouting/Assistant GM Jesse Buss took us through the process for how L.A. ended up taking Larry Nance, Jr. last season with that same No. 27 overall pick.
Buss joined us once again to take a look at the process for selecting Kuzma. Below is a transcription of our conversation:
Trudell: Let’s be honest, you guys had to be pretty happy with your selection while watching Kuzma rip up Las Vegas, with the qualifier that it’s “only Summer League.” When did he first get on your radar from a scouting perspective?
Buss: He’s been on our radar for a couple years now playing in the Pac-12 at Utah. We got to see them come play at USC and UCLA, as well as (outside of Los Angeles). I personally saw him when he was a freshman, but he didn’t play that much. I – and some of our scouts – saw him again when he started to play more as a sophomore and of course when he excelled as a junior.
We’ve had our eye on him because he’s multi-positional at the four and the three at that size (6’9’’). He has an ability to pass, shoot the ball, run the floor … good athlete, good understanding of the game. He was always intriguing to us. He just started to shoot the three this past year at Utah, and he didn’t shoot it that well at the beginning of the season. But as the season went on and in conference play he started to get more confidence with (the three).
He told us as much during his interview with us in Chicago. Throughout the whole process of the combine, he was on fire. He almost hit every shot in the one day he scrimmaged at the 5-on-5 portion.
When he came here to work out for us (at the Toyota Sports Center, before L.A. moved into the UCLA Health Training Center), it was more of the same. We were pretty confident in the way his stroke looked and how he was hitting shots at his workout that he was going to project to be a pretty good shooter. Hopefully he’s able to keep that up. It’s a crazy number to shoot 48 percent (in Vegas), but he’s a hard worker, a good kid and he embodies what we’re trying to build here culture wise. He’s an unselfish guy, he works well with others and is versatile on both ends of the court.
MT: Let me pause you on the 3-point shot. Before you had an idea that he could be a plus 3-point shooter, he still had a lot of things in his game to offer. But if he does keep up the pace from ... and other teams properly forecasted it … he definitely wouldn’t have made it out of the lottery, right?
Buss: In today’s NBA, there’s no doubt that shooting is a premium. It’s one of the most, if not the most, important offensive attributes a guy can have today, especially when you’re drafting Lonzo Ball No. 2 overall. Lonzo is going to get the ball to guys, and find guys open when they probably shouldn’t be because of his amazing court vision. So surrounding him with quality shooters is really important for an offensive flow under coach (Luke) Walton.
MT: For Kuzma’s shot specifically, though, how do you weigh the “upside” you might see from his shooting it better late in the season and in the draft workouts/etc., compared to the 30.2 career percent at Utah and the 32.1 percent as a junior? Sometimes guys that shoot a lower percentage in college just aren’t good shooters.
Buss: His mechanics. They were pretty solid. We were pretty confident from the coaching staff through the scouting staff that he should and could become a better shooter. He does have to put in the work, though. He didn’t show in three years at Utah that he was a knock-down shooter like he was in Vegas, so he definitely has to keep working at it and improve on the big stage. We just felt confident that he’d be a pretty good shooter.
MT: How much stock are you putting in his all-around performance in Vegas, which is of course a far different level of basketball than we’ll see in October?
Buss: It’s the first step. At the end of the day it’s not going to define his career. He’s got to keep working and prove it over the course of an 82-game season, plus more, hopefully. It’s good to see him come out right away and be confident with his jump shot, because that was really the biggest thing about him that was a (question). Summer League was a small sample size, but it was encouraging for his development. He does so many other things well that with his shooting on top of it, if he keeps it up, tells us we’ll really have something here.
MT: Take me back to Draft Day. With Magic Johnson, Rob Pelinka and everybody there in the war room, what was the process by which you ended up with Kuzma?
Buss: We’ve kept the process the same. With the input of our scouts, we all work together to orchestrate our big board, and Kuzma was the highest guy on our board when we came up at No. 27. We actually had him much higher than 27th on our board; it just worked out that he fell to us. We were ecstatic when we made the pick.
MT: I know you won’t tell me exactly where you had him on the board, but it was significantly higher?
Buss: Yes a significant number. Several spots. He was our highest ranked college prospect we’ve gotten outside the lottery (in the past several years). This being the deep draft that it was, you just felt like getting a top-20 pick – at least in our rankings – was going to be a rotational player no matter what. He gives us a different look in terms of what we have at that position.
MT: Kuzma was so good offensively in Vegas that we may have paid less attention to his defense. How would you evaluate that?
Buss: He’s very active. He’s good on switching the pick and roll. He competes. He’ll close out on shooters and moves his feet very well. He’s very mobile and active. He showed some toughness and some grit, not minding guarding guys on the post or the perimeter. Overall I think he gave a great effort.
MT: Looking at the roster Walton has to work with, there may be more opportunity to play at the three than at the four, right? To the extent that we still care about positions in 2017, at least. While Brandon Ingram will start at the three, backup minutes should be available, and Kuzma may well earn them away from Corey Brewer or Luol Deng. At the four, you have both Randle and Nance, Jr. who need minutes, even though both can slide to the five to get Kuzma some minutes at the four as well...
Buss: I’d say that he can guard multiple positions at the three and the four. He does need to get stronger. But overall I think he can be a plus defender. Offense takes care of itself (position wise).
MT: What have you seen from Kuzma since Summer League concluded?
Buss: He’s been in here almost every day at the new facility with the coaches. We’ve been very happy with the progress and the hard work they’ve been putting in.