Kyle Kuzma isn't done smashing expectations
When Kyle Kuzma sat down for the interview that would change his life, he did not have a script prepared or talking points memorized.
What he did have was a lifetime's worth of experiences packed into only 22 years.
So when he met with the leaders of the Lakers' front office at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine, he shared the story of a young man from Flint, Michigan, who used basketball to survive a city shook by gang violence, recession and lead-contaminated drinking water.
"Kyle talked a lot about his Flint upbringing and some of the things he went through," Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka said. "Almost being homeless, the struggles his mom had for he and his family to survive.
"Right away we sensed that he was a person that knew how important it was to endure through challenges and face adversity and get stronger."
Before that interview, Pelinka already had a vision of the kind of player Kuzma could be: a "Swiss Army knife" forward that could attack the rim, splash three-pointers and defend multiple positions.
Kyle Kuzma during his 2017 Draft workout with the Lakers
Pelinka knew that the University of Utah product had the right skill set for the modern NBA. This interview confirmed that he had the exact mindset for the Lakers.
"I was just me," Kuzma said. "I was just being myself. That's one thing I try to take pride in: not changing up. Just being who I am, and having people love me or hate me for who I am."
The Lakers loved him enough to acquire him (via a draft-day trade with Brooklyn) 27th overall a month later.
The 6-foot-9 power forward quickly established himself as a fan favorite during the Lakers' run to the 2017 Summer League title — winning championship game MVP honors with a 30-point display.
If there were questions of whether he could continue his success in the regular season, Kuzma quickly provided some answers.
By the end of his first month in the NBA, Kuzma led his draft class in scoring by averaging about 17 points, highlighted by seven games of 20-plus in his first 19 appearances.
"He literally shows up to play, no matter what it is," head coach Luke Walton said. "If it's 3-on-3, a shooting contest, some pre-practice drill work … he's always competing."
That insatiable competitiveness comes from the same location as his already-polished offensive arsenal: a high school gym in Flint.
Heading into his junior year at Bentley High, Kuzma spent the offseason learning to attack the paint from his 62-year-old coach, Earl Jordan.
"The entire summer we worked on nothing but post moves," Kuzma said. "Didn't shoot a three — nothing. That's how I developed my footwork: jump hook, running hook, stuff like that. Just from working with him every single day on the same exact moves."
Tracing back to those long days in Flint, Kuzma was able to enter the NBA with a uniquely complete variety of scoring skills, from running jumpers and off-ball cuts to pull-up jumpers and even a skyhook.
Right away we sensed that he was a person that knew how important it was to endure through challenges and face adversity and get stronger.Rob Pelinka
Now he wants to give back to the city that shaped him into a first-year offensive dynamo.
In terms of immediate impact, he plans to use his platform on the world's most popular basketball team to spread awareness about the Flint water crisis — a calamity that has plagued his hometown since April 2014.
But he also has big ideas for the future of Flint, saying he wants to go "the whole nine" with children's basketball camps, community events and youth programs.
"I'll always be back there," Kuzma said. "They always say you never forget where you came from. For me, that holds dear because I love my city.
"I want to be a positive figure in my city for years and years to come. I don't want to be one of those guys that talks about their city and then all of a sudden forgets about it. I don't want to be that type of guy."
It was in this city that a young Kuzma grew up watching old Hardwood Classics — a collection of the greatest games in NBA history.
A self-described "basketball junkie," these tapes were Kuzma's first exposure to Magic Johnson: the Lakers legend, current President of Basketball Operations and favorite son of nearby Lansing, Michigan.
Magic was one of the men — along with Pelinka, Walton, Assistant General Manger & Director of Scouting Jesse Buss and Director of Player Personnel Ryan West — who interviewed Kuzma at the Combine.
And when Kuzma came to the Lakers' practice facility for a predraft workout about a week later, he just had to get a picture with Magic for Instagram.
Kuzma taking on one of his toughest tasks of the year in guarding former MVP Lebron James
Yet, while Kuzma made clear that Johnson is still a mythic figure back in Michigan, he also said that his friends ask more about a different Lakers icon: Kobe Bryant.
Kuzma was always fascinated by Bryant's game. Growing up, he wanted to incorporate Kobe's elite footwork into his own repertoire. With these subtle ways of manipulating defenses, Kuzma immediately thrived in the NBA.
"He has the best footwork probably of all-time, arguably," Kuzma said of Bryant. "I've always watched film on him and Hakeem Olajuwon and those types of guys to try to learn footwork. You can beat guys even if you're not the fastest."
Fortunately for Kuzma, he does, in fact, have an impressively quick first step, which has allowed him to blow past defenders and attack the rim.
But Pelinka — Bryant's close friend and former agent — said that Kuzma (and everyone else in the league) has a lot to learn to reach Kobe's level of footwork.
"Kobe was so maniacal," Pelinka said. "He would do everything (including) studying how a leopard used its tail for balance when it chased a wildebeest; and then he would use his leg that way. … The level of detail and study he was doing — no one's approaching that."
Kuzma relaxes inside the new UCLA Health Training Facility
But in Kuzma's quest to become as potent a scorer as Bryant, he sought the right person for advice: Kobe himself.
Not a month into his rookie year, Kuzma approached Pelinka to see if he could arrange for a meeting with the 18-time All-Star.
Bryant had heard much about Kuzma from Pelinka (who texts him regularly). He was impressed enough to have Pelinka pass along his phone number so the two could set up a dinner.
"Kyle has a curiosity to learn, and I think that's gonna make him elite and great as a player," Pelinka said. "… Because of his toughness and his tenacity, Kobe learned from watching him and from stories from me, that Kyle is a worker. I think he respects those guys."
Kuzma and Bryant met over steaks (Kobe had the porterhouse), and the future Hall of Famer drilled in the importance of never relenting when it comes to working at his game.
Pelinka contacted Bryant after the dinner to check on how it had gone. Kobe relayed that he thought that Kuzma showed intelligence based on the questions he asked.
The creator of the famous "Mamba Mentality" also liked the intensity that Kuzma brought to the game, and Pelinka said he believes the two will "have a growing relationship."
"(Kuzma) was like, ‘Man, the stories he told me! I could have sat there for nine hours, that was unbelievable!'" Pelinka said.
Growing up in Flint, the idea of being able to call upon an NBA player (much less one of Bryant's stature) is a foreign concept for Kuzma, who has made it a point to constantly tweet out messages of support to high school and college players trying to grind their way to the next level.
That would be pretty cool. Just for people to remember you well after you're gone. To remember how you played, that's pretty special.Kyle Kuzma
"I never really had role models or guys in the NBA to show me the ropes or be a friend, mentor to me like that," he said.
What Kuzma did have was a mother who worked multiple jobs at a time — from an Italian restaurant and video store to a dental office and an assembly line at General Motors — in order to give him and his brother and sister their best chances to makes something special of their lives.
The two remain close and extremely proud of one another. Kyle has a tattoo of her name, Karri, on his right shoulder. Karri lists her name on Twitter as "L.A. Laker Kuz's Mom."
Kyle has already done so much to pay off Karri's endless sacrifices. He earned a sociology degree from the University of Utah, where he was also named First Team All-Pac-12.
After being drafted into the NBA, the 22-year-old moved his mom out of Flint and into a condo in nearby Grand Blanc, Michigan, with his first NBA paycheck.
He thinks that his mom will work another four years, but admits that simply stopping may be difficult for her, given how accustomed she has become to a life of nonstop labor.
Kuzma fearlessly attacks the rim above Joel Embiid
It is that same work ethic that has her son committed to exceeding lofty expectations, saying "I've got a chance to be really special."
In fact, Kuzma never really compares himself to fellow rookies, instead choosing to measure his game against the best in the league, like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Draft status as a late first-rounder notwithstanding, Kuzma feels that he has what it takes to reach that level himself.
"I just want to be one of the greatest players to play," Kuzma said. "That's my mind set. That's how I approach the game. I got here by working hard."
According to Kuzma, the common thread between the greats like Kobe and LeBron is an unwillingness to settle for anything less than the best.
It's a trait he has seen in players since those days of watching Hardwood Classics. Maybe in the future, if everything follows his plan, he'll be on a few episodes himself.
"I think it would be cool to play in a game that is generational that everybody wants to keep watching," Kuzma said.
And perhaps he will be able to affect the generation that comes next. As he grew up studying the skyhook and Kobe's footwork, maybe the next era of ballers will try to emulate the game of another gifted scorer with an unrelenting drive to be great.
"That would be pretty cool," Kuzma said. "Just for people to remember you well after you're gone. To remember how you played, that's pretty special."