Media day in the NBA is the time for players to boast about the weight they’ve lost, the muscle they’ve added, the skills they’ve refined and they optimism they have for what’s about to come next.
Rarely does anyone speak in absolutes — not when the clichés are so readily available. But Kyle Kuzma, the third-year forward, isn’t afraid to take his shots and Friday, he talked like he’s ready to be the Lakers’ third star.
Despite starting training camp injured, Kuzma defined the team’s expectations — first step? “Get to the playoffs” — and nonchalantly shared his lofty goal to make the All-Star team this season — “I don’t see why not.”
It was a nice reminder that this year’s Lakers roster, one filled with well-traveled veterans surrounding LeBron James and Anthony Davis, still has at least a few tablespoons of youthful exuberance on board.
Friday, Kuzma took the podium and addressed reporters as the last piece of the Lakers’ post-Kobe Bryant rebuild.
D’Angelo Russell is with the Warriors, via Brooklyn, where the Lakers sent him in a critical move that cleared the way for James to come in free agency in 2018. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart all were part of the price tag to acquire Davis from New Orleans. (A deal Lakers management fought to keep Kuzma out of).
Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga? They were cap casualties sent to Washington to help the team chase another max free agent. Svi Mykhailiuk? The sharpshooter was dealt to Detroit last year. Ivica Zubac? He’s across town after another midseason deal.
There’s only Kuzma left, the last of the kids that’s still a Laker.
“I’m grown now. I’m not a kid,” Kuzma said, faux-offended. “Nah, just playing.”
But he really is all the organization has to show when it comes to homegrown talent. No Lakers draft pick has played 250 games for the team since 2006 first-rounder Jordan Farmar. In his two years, Kuzma’s played 147, averaging more than 17 points and showing tremendous promise and value for a player taken 27th in the NBA Draft.
In Year 3, the Lakers are counting on Kuzma to get healthy and to matter in their push for a championship, whether he’s starting or coming off the bench. They’ll have to wait some, though. He’s recovering from a foot injury he suffered while trying to make Team USA this summer, an experience that will only help as he tries to find the best ways to play off his megastar teammates.
The hope is that rest will have him ready soon enough, maybe even later in training camp.
“We have a lot of encouragement and hope around the progress that Kyle is making and has made since we found out about his injury,” general manager Rob Pelinka said Friday. “He’s working really closely with the staff, and the progress he’s made has been terrific. There’s a lot of optimism and not a whole lot of worry, concern or fear.”
The bigger fears probably should be saved for exactly how Kuzma best fits. A pessimist would look at Kuzma, James and Davis and point out that all three are probably best used at power forward. An optimist, though, would counter that Davis and James are way closer to being positionless unicorns than they are to being traditional big men.
Still, it could be a challenge for new coach Frank Vogel to get three of his best players on the court at the same time. Friday, Vogel offered no hints at potential starting lineups, telling people to “stay tuned” while he figures it out.
Kuzma could certainly help the Lakers if he gets his jumper figured out — a top priority this summer and a project that showed some positive results with the national team before his foot started to ache.
It needed work too. Only one player in league history has ever attempted more threes in a year and made fewer than Kuzma did last season (Jason Williams in 2002).
“The most improvement is finding a consistent jump-shooting form and sticking to it,” he said. “Really just have that daily discipline of shooting the same shot every time. I think that’s the biggest thing I worked on. I saw it here in my USA stint. That’s one thing for sure — the biggest thing.”
It’s why some people grinned when Kuzma tried to channel the metaphor-heavy Pelinka later in the day. Kuzma trying to describe the Lakers’ one-day-at-a-time mantra by saying, “You lay a brick, eventually you’re gonna’ have a house,” is funny coming from someone who barely made 30% from three-point range last season.
But that’s part of his charm. Kuzma doesn’t let the misses keep him from firing. He doesn’t let a brick here or there shake his confidence. It just might be why he won’t wince when he’s next to two of the universe’s biggest stars, contributing more as an equal than as a player who still needs to develop.
And it’s probably why he’s not afraid to stop a predictable day like media day from staying so boringly predictable.