Coming back to Utah will always feel a little bit like coming home for Kyle Kuzma. While he gets a positive reception nearly anywhere he plays, it felt a little warmer in Salt Lake City, where he spent four years playing for the Utes.
“I really pretty much grew up here, maturity-wise being here at Utah,” Kuzma said. “Just has a place in my heart. It’s really special to have a reception like that and see that people are kind of still remember me, so ... .”
Kuzma had a hot first quarter and finished with 26 points in the Lakers’ 117-110 loss to the Jazz. The Lakers led the entire first quarter and took a 12-point lead into the second, but the Jazz stormed back after they fell behind 46-36.
Utah went on an 11-0 run to take control of the game, and the Lakers ran out of steam against a team likely headed to the playoffs
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the Lakers with 28 points. Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, Josh Hart and Tyler Ennis also scored in double digits. Randle was one assists shy of a triple double with 12 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists.
The Jazz were led by guard Ricky Rubio, who scored 31 points (25 in the first half). Star rookie guard Donovan Mitchell added 26 points.
The Lakers had nine players active for Tuesday’s game, with seven players either with their G-League team or out because of injury.
The Lakers left Brandon Ingram and Luol Deng at home. Ingram is recovering from a concussion and Deng, who has not played since the Lakers’ season opener, is listed as having an ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago during the Lakers’ road trip.
Thomas Bryant, Gary Payton II and Travis Wear were on assignment with the South Bay Lakers. Isaiah Thomas was away from the team, recovering from hip surgery. Lonzo Ball was with the team but didn’t play because of a left knee injury.
Kuzma has been one of the beneficiaries. Since March 3, when he began starting, Kuzma has averaged 38.7 minutes and 19 points per game.
On Monday night, Kuzma played 36 minutes, 28 seconds.
“He was great,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “I just love how he competes. He really wants, he loves that moment. I think it meant a little more to him I think … being home in Utah.”
The first time the Lakers played in Utah, Kuzma was at the start of his career, a surprisingly productive offensive player who provided new NBA excitement. He was excited at his first chance to return.
This time, Kuzma came into the game saying it was just another game, having already played one in Utah. He also came in as a more complete player.
“He was getting so much love for what he was doing offensively it would’ve been easy for him to not care about defense,” Walton said.
“But he wants to be great, he wants to be a good defender and he works on it a lot.”
That’s not to say there isn’t room for him to grow.
Even as Walton praised Kuzma’s offensive performance after the game, he noted some defensive issues he planned to discuss with Kuzma.
“We’ll break down clips for him on things,” Walton said. “There were a couple shot contests he had tonight that he then kind of just floated.
“We need him to contests the shots and get back in and help us rebound. But happy, really happy with just the way, he’s been nursing a little bit of a tweaked ankle, too, and he just keeps going and going, which is a great mindset for our guys and our team to have.”
Kuzma didn’t have his ankle wrapped after the game; he initially sprained it on March 13 against the Denver Nuggets and has been playing on it since. His average minutes per game are the most of any rookie during that span. Second on the list is Utah’s Mitchell and third and fourth are Ball and Hart.
“I love competing and being out there playing as much as I can,” Kuzma said. “I love it. I love this game. It’s fun to be out there and play free and run and get tired.”
Have the minutes bothered him?
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli