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Column: Kyle Kuzma says it’s fun ‘playing the right way’ with Team USA

Team USA’s Kyle Kuzma (21) shoots jumpers in front of Myles Turner (56) during World Cup training camp at UCLA Health Training Center on Tuesday in El Segundo.
Team USA forward Kyle Kuzma of the Lakers shoots in front of Myles Turner during training camp at UCLA Health Training Center on Tuesday in El Segundo.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

Kyle Kuzma, on the Lakers’ practice court in El Segundo with his new blonde hair, talked about how much fun it is to play this way.

It’s making the extra pass, he said, letting your star teammates worry about scoring while you focus on the other stuff — mainly playing top-notch defense and fighting for every rebound.

“We’ve got a deep team. When you play with an all-star team like this, with stars, everybody has to have a certain type of role. And that’s been my role,” he said. “…It’s actually fun — super fun — playing the right way.”

But Kuzma isn’t talking about the all-star Lakers team that has LeBron James, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. No, the deep team that’s been super fun for him to complement — and compliment — has been Team USA, which began the week in Los Angeles with a light practice Tuesday night.

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Kuzma’s not a lock to make Team USA — there are a handful of wings, like Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker and Jaylen Brown, who are more equipped to be role players. Coach Gregg Popovich said the final roster for the upcoming FIBA World Cup is not finalized.

The Lakers signed 6-1 guard Demetrius Jackson, who was the 45th selection in the 2016 draft. He has played with Boston, Houston and Philadelphia.

But those things that Kuzma talked about — the playmaking, the defense and the rebounding — aren’t just his pathways to a spot on the roster. It’s also one of the big keys for the Lakers this upcoming season.

With the Davis trade drama over — and it was a drama that had real effects on the young players who were openly dangled — you might think Kuzma would be settled heading into his third season.

In one sense, he told the Times, yeah, he is. But in another ...

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“I’m staying here, so that’s one side of the ball,” he said of remaining a Laker . “But the other side of the ball is that it’s an entire new team and a whole different staff.”

Only six players from last season are back. The bench, save for assistant Miles Simon and some support staff, will be all new faces. Roles are wide open, still yet to be defined and likely to stay that way well into the season.

In the meantime, though, Kuzma has the recipe for how to make that transition the smoothest — rebound, defend, make plays for the stars and hit open shots.

But the question Popovich and Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo hope to answer this week is one NBA executives and scouts have been asking for the last year — can Kuzma really do that stuff?

The Lakers open the 2019-20 season against the Clippers and will play their Staples Center rivals again on Christmas Day.

We’ve seen his ability to put the ball in the basket when given a lot of shots. But questions about his ability to score efficiently still define his reputation around the NBA, which only grew stronger after a disastrous season behind the three-point line.

Kuzma hit just 30.3% of his threes last year — by far the worst percentage of any player with as many attempts (422) as he had. But he’s a willing rebounder and a good athlete — a useful combination for a player his size (6-9).

Defense, though, still is not a strength, and people who have been around Team USA through the early days of camp haven’t seen him making much impact on that end — though playing for Popovich certainly could help his development — and it’s why he could be a victim of roster cuts before the world championships in China this September.

The Lakers value what Kuzma does. It’s why he’s here and not in New Orleans. But the things that make him a bit of an awkward fit on Team USA might need some ironing out once the Lakers’ all-star team convenes this fall.

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There’s little doubt about Kuzma’s desire — the right way of basketball is super fun and leads to winning, which can be super-duper fun. And whether it’s with Team USA or the Lakers, he’s going to have a chance to show he’s capable.

“I feel like I’m up for it,” Kuzma said.


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