Los Angeles • It was an innocent question from a reporter: Kyle Kuzma, how is L.A. treating you?
From his corner of the locker room, Lakers teammate Josh Hart started laughing.
“You can’t tell?” he said, as Kuzma blushed a few seats away. “My boy out there killing!”
It’s true: Kuzma is adapting well to Los Angeles since leaving the University of Utah a few months ago. On Tuesday, in a 105-99 loss to the Jazz, Kuzma tied a team high with 18 points, finding ways to the rim with the confidence and savvy of a veteran.
He left vaunted defender Thabo Sefolosha guarding empty air on one spin move. The 22-year-old also fired off threes with confidence rarely seen during his college career. So far this preseason, he’s averaging a team-leading 19.2 points while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor in four appearances.
And Staples Center, hungry for star power and without hyped rookie Lonzo Ball for most of the preseason, has already taken notice. When Kuzma checked in for the first time on Tuesday, the crowd gratified him with a low, rumbling “Kuuuuuuuz.” In the fourth quarter, a few even tried to rouse an “MVP” chant.
So yeah, Kuzma said: “It’s going great in L.A.”
Kuzma’s splashy debut
In the NBA preseason, the former Ute forward has put together impressive games coming off the Lakers’ bench:
Oct. 2 vs. Denver • 23 points, 9 for 17 FGs, 1 rebound
Oct. 4 vs. Denver • 21 points, 7 for 9 FGs, 2 rebounds
Sunday vs. Sacramento • 15 points, 6 for 12 FGs, 8 rebounds
Tuesday vs. Utah • 18 points, 5 for 14 FGs, 4 rebounds
It’s been a charmed rise for a player that, when he declared for the NBA Draft in March, drew some skepticism even from the Utes fans who cheered for him for three years. From a fringe second-round prospect, to seeing his stock rise at the NBA Combine, to a first-round pick to a standout Summer League, the NBA preseason has brought even more praise for Kuzma.
Magic Johnson, one of his boyhood idols, called him “the steal of the draft.” Richard Sherman tweeted that Kuzma was what the Lakers “hoped” teammate Brandon Ingram would be (a comment which has seemingly been ignored in the Lakers’ locker room). Trevor Booker tweeted during the Jazz-Lakers game that he would be better than Ball.
Even Lakers coach Luke Walton, who was heavily involved in drafting the Michigan native No. 27 overall said he’s been a little overwhelmed by how quickly Kuzma is adapting to NBA life.
“Yeah, I’m surprised,” he said. “Not because I didn’t think he could play. Just for any rookie coming in, this is a tough, tough transition. He’s done it well, in a very short time obviously, but he’s embraced it as well as any rookie I’ve been around.”
While Kuzma said he’s grateful for the three years he spent at Utah, developing into an All-Pac-12 player in his junior year, time away from school has done wonders for his game.
Walton said he’s already done a lot of correction on his jump shooting, which has helped him become a more versatile threat from deep. Kuzma looked at video of all his shots from his college career, studying his balance and discovering inconsistencies in his form. After working on his legs, he’s forcing other forwards to guard him on the perimeter to defend him from long range — which wasn’t much of a factor at Utah.
It’s also clear that Kuzma has improved his body mass, lowering his fat percentage and building the muscle required for an NBA season. He admitted that not worrying about class has played a major role in letting him focus on some of the details of his hoops career.
“I don’t have to worry about academic advisors hounding me or going to class,” he said. “I can just go back in the gym and worry about nothing else but basketball.”
That freedom has benefitted the Lakers as well: Walton said he sees Kuzma doing the right things with his time.
“That’s why he’s had success: His work habits are incredible,” he said. “He loves the weight room. He doesn’t take days off. He gets treatment. He loves taking care of his body. When he’s doing shots, he’s not just getting random shots up — he’s taking them full speed.”
Jazz coach Quin Snyder said he’s watched Kuzma at Utah for a long time, admiring his game from afar.
While the Jazz didn’t have the chance to draft him at the end of the first round (he went one pick ahead of Tony Bradley), Snyder described Kuzma’s summer as “terrific” and said his confidence jumped out among his peers.
“It’s clear how skilled he is,” Snyder said. “He’s just a versatile guy who can do things on the court.”
While the steady rise isn’t necessarily guaranteed to continue — every rookie sees highs and lows — Kuzma has won a lot of supporters, including those who didn’t necessarily see success coming this early. He said he’s gotten positive feedback from those who initially told him staying in the draft wasn’t his best option.
While he welcomes praise, it seems the skepticism of others remains his greatest fuel.
“Everybody’s a doubter at one point, and everybody wants to hop on the bandwagon,” he said. “That’s just how life is: You just gotta prove people wrong.”