Kuzma’s Appetite for More Brings Him to Team USA

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

The first impression he made on Lakers fans might have slipped many minds at this point because of everything else he has accomplished in his two professional seasons. At a time when the franchise really could use the spark to rebuild hope, an upstart named Kyle Kuzma averaged 21.9 points in the 2017 NBA Summer League.

It was slightly shocking and particularly uplifting for a guy drafted 27th overall to be that productive and look that self-assured. Kuzma brought the championship home from Las Vegas for the Lakers then, too, and was named MVP after his 30-point final game—when Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart were all injured and missed the final game of that summer.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma

Who could’ve known exactly how everything would transpire to current day, but it turns out that those three—all coming off injury-limited seasons—went out in trade this offseason for the Lakers to land Anthony Davis. Kuzma remains, and he circled back to Vegas last month to watch some summer-league ball, noticeably forming a Lakers power huddle with teammates Davis and LeBron James as celebrity spectators.

Last week, Kuzma returned to Vegas under far different circumstances than two years prior: He has fast-tracked from that largely unknown dude James sat in the front row and watched on the Lakers’ summer team to chosen member of the USA Basketball Men’s National Team. Team USA has been preparing for the FIBA World Cup with training camp on the same UNLV campus where Kuzma debuted as a pro in 2017, and the work continues this week with Team USA inhabiting Kuzma’s home base at the Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center.

The only other third-year NBA players on the current U.S. roster are Jayson Tatum, the third overall pick in that draft; De’Aaron Fox, fifth overall; and Donovan Mitchell, who in 2017-18 won the NBA Players Association’s award for the best rookie season. Kuzma’s ascent, including being advised by many he’d go undrafted in ‘17 if he left college, continues to be far less direct than some heralded peers.

Accordingly, this offer to represent the country and compete with some of the league’s best in the summer is extra precious to Kuzma.

“I got the call from USAB, and they wanted me to come and tryout,” Kuzma said. “I was ecstatic.”

As Kuzma works and strives for more this summer on another big stage, it reinforces his unique path. He is all about working and striving for more. His hunger has been evident throughout these two years, dating back to those splashy summer-league games in which he introduced himself to the party.

And now it’s especially pronounced for the Lakers to be carrying Kuzma’s youthful, underdog spirit while transitioning into this veteran, contending team.

“I just want to be a great player,” Kuzma said. “I don’t like to sit out. I like to play basketball. It’s my life. So, for me to have the opportunity to play for USA Basketball and have a chance to go and win a medal, you can’t beat that. You don’t get that opportunity all the time.”

As full as Kuzma’s life is becoming, it’s also a testament to basic goal-setting. Some people say they want to accomplish a lot in life; some even dare to say it openly and earnestly, as Kuzma long has. They read about it, finding proven theories to apply and successful life moves via biography to pattern. They talk about it, even going straight to the greats and asking for help.

Many others never say it—and never dream it.

In Kuzma, the Lakers have a guy who is determined to go for it.

If you were to retrace the story arc of how “Kyle at the Y,” the kid who camped out at the YMCA gym all day, everyday, in Flint, Mich., could give rise to this wave of “Kuzmania,” you wouldn’t be lacking for those humbling, harrowing moments.

I just want to be a great player, I don’t like to sit out. I like to play basketball. It’s my life.

Kyle Kuzma

Being viewed as soft by coaches almost as soon as he achieved his dream of being a Division I player at the University of Utah. Being overwhelmed at prep school, culture-shocked at being away from home. Being the new kid—literally moving to a new school every year for his seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grades … and definitely not as some hotshot coming in to carry the basketball program.

Being laughed at upon sharing the ambition to play in the NBA when even his neighborhood buddies were better at basketball than he was.

On a Lakers team about to be led by two of the NBA’s ultimate over-dogs—have there been any more obvious no-brainer top picks in this era of NBA drafts than James in 2003 and Davis in ’12?—Kuzma carries his confidence without having gotten a landslide of positive reinforcement along the way.

Every team needs a blend of personalities and perspectives, and the underdog element from Kuzma stands to propel this Lakers team forward against adversity.

Kuzma won’t be alone in that. Upon joining the Lakers, Troy Daniels said it cavalierly and confidently when promoting himself and his three-point expertise: “I’ve been overlooked so many times I can’t even count.”

Danny Green went 47th overall in 2009. Daniels went undrafted in ’13. Quinn Cook went undrafted in ’15. Alex Caruso went undrafted in ’16.

Rejection can breed both doubt and determination. The above success stories testify to the possibility of the latter.

Those who haven’t had it as tough tend to respect those who persevere to join them. As Kevin Durant, a No. 2 overall pick, told Kuzma in February on ESPN’s The Boardroom: “The crazy part about it is: You’re going to inspire so many people because you’re the 27th pick. A lot of people can’t do what you do.”

With this USA Basketball group, Kuzma gets to learn from veterans who can help him achieve more and inspire more. One of the consistent threads for these international teams has been younger players getting golden growth opportunities, including Davis being that sponge on the 2012 U.S. team led by Kobe Bryant, James and Durant.

Kuzma’s current experience includes being an eager pupil in USA Basketball head coach Gregg Popovich’s classroom.

“He’s my favorite coach of all time,” Kuzma said. “Growing up, I’m a hoops junkie, watching a lot of the Spurs teams, and he’s won. He’s won at every level he’s been at. So, to be here and learn, to be around him, it’s really great.”

As necessary as it is for the Lakers to have veteran presence this season that correlates with the probability of winning an NBA championship, no one will forget how refreshing it was in recent years for the team to be referred to as the “Baby Lakers” or how commonly the words “young core” came to be used.

There is something to be said for the energy that comes with youngsters. Even on Team USA, managing director Jerry Colangelo is citing “the enthusiasm, the youth, the athleticism and versatility” on a team without as many superstars as in the past.

Team USA

Team USA

“If you look at the history of USA Basketball, in ’08 we had 12 players when we won the gold medal in China—and in ’10 we had 12 different players, and four of those young players [Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry] all went on to be MVPs. But they were 21-, 22-year-old guys at the time,” Colangelo said. “So, some of the young players here are in that same boat. They have the opportunity to showcase. … Donovan Mitchell, Kuzma, Fox, whoever they may be, it’s kind of exciting.”

Kuzma, 24, projects to be the youngest rotation player on the Lakers’ roster this season. Until then, serious games in international play will serve as a high-level lab for Kuzma to cook all the recipes he has been working on—just what you would expect from this gym rat.

Kuzma answered, “Get in shape,” as the underlying key to improving his defense. He is also trying to apply a more consistent, high-release stroke that will stand up to defenders running at him and limit his mechanical over-analysis. He sank his only three-point attempt Friday in the USA Basketball scrimmage.

Team USA plays Spain on Friday in Anaheim, then moves on to Australia for several more exhibitions. The 12-man U.S. roster goes to China on Aug. 29 and hopes to stay there until the World Cup final game on Sept. 15.

Lakers training camp opens on Sept. 28, although players can informally work out together before that. By that time, we will have seen a lot more of Kuzma doing what he does, which is pushing himself forward.

Asked for his hopes in the coming weeks, Kuzma said: “To improve. I like to try to improve every day. And as a team, obviously, it’s to win.”

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Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.

To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.

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