“He looks like me,” Kuzma said. “I’m 22, he’s 21.”
There are more meaningful ways in which Kuzma is finding himself compared to other rookies, including Simmons. The reality about Kuzma’s mentality, though, is that he doesn’t check on the progress of any other rookie, he isn’t concerning himself with rookie rankings. He prefers to look beyond those players to players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, whose ranks he hopes to join one day.
He can leave the rookie comparisons to everyone else. Simmons is the front runner to be the NBA’s rookie of the year this year. He leads all rookies in points (18), rebounds (9.3) and assists (7.1) per game. Kuzma has been drawing notice as a candidate, too. Kuzma ranks third in points per game with 16.8 and has made his mark with his outside shooting.
While Simmons was named the Eastern Conference rookie of the month for the first month and a half of the season, Kuzma was named the Western Conference rookie of the month for that period. On Thursday, they’ll face each other for the second time this season as the Lakers visit the Philadelphia 76ers. It is the first of a four-game trip.
“He’s a good player,” Kuzma said of Simmons. “Pretty good rookie, having a good year. Doing a good job of facilitating, scores it, rebounds, he’s having a pretty solid rookie year.”
The two players took vastly different paths to their standout rookie seasons.
Simmons’ rookie season came at a delay. After the 76ers selected him first overall in the 2016 draft, Simmons then broke his foot during training camp. With the injury, he missed what would have been his rookie season, preserving his eligibility for rookie of the year one more year.
Despite not having seen Simmons in the role much, the 76ers settled on Simmons as their point guard during the offseason, traded up for the first overall pick and drafted Markelle Fultz, another point guard who could play off the ball. In keeping with 76ers tradition, Fultz has been out with an injury since the fifth game of the season.
But with second-year player Joel Embiid blossoming as a star and Simmons finally on the court, the 76ers are finally starting to show the progress they have been building toward for three years.
Simmons is a big part of that.
“Teams are trying to guard him different ways because he doesn’t like to shoot from outside and he still finds a way every game to get near a triple-double,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Defensively he anticipates very well getting in passing lanes, leading transitions. He’s a heck of a player.”
Walton believes his first season in the NBA gave him a head start on learning the NBA game.
“I mean he is considered a rookie, but I think if you’re a basketball player and you’re paying attention, you’re around the league every day, you’re ahead of the curve compared to other rookies in that class,” Walton said.
Basically everything about Simmons path to this point is different from Kuzma’s. Kuzma spent four years at Utah, playing three, where Simmons came out after his freshman year at Louisiana State. Kuzma was largely overlooked in the draft, being selected 27th by the Lakers. Kuzma didn’t enter the season as a sure rookie-of-the-year candidate, and unlike Simmons he isn’t a regular starter on his team.
In the macro view, too, their situations are different. While Philadelphia (13-10) is deemed close to its revival, the Lakers are not. At 8-15, the Lakers are working through the early stages of a rebuild.
What they have the most in common, though, is that they aren’t looking toward the race for the award as a goal.
“I think I’ve played all right so far,” Simmons said recently. “A lot of improvement I need to make — turnovers, defensively I need to be better, and obviously rebounding, be consistent with that.”
That quote came when Simmons was asked about being named the Eastern Conference rookie of the month, with Simmons eyeing much more.
When: 5 p.m. PST Thursday.
On air: TV: TNT, Spectrum Sportsnet, Spectrum Deportes; Radio: 710, 1330.
Update: The last time the Lakers faced the 76ers, Embiid scored a career-high 46 points. He told reporters in Philadelphia that he thinks he has a “pretty good chance” of doing it again.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli