El Segundo, Calif. • It’s perhaps an unfair expectation, but an expectation nonetheless that NBA players are supposed to make a big leap from Year 1 to Year 2.
Donovan Mitchell experiences it every time a Jazz fan wonders about him pressing offensively, or his shot selection.
Former University of Utah standout and current Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, an unexpected rookie sensation a season ago, is experiencing the ups and downs now, too.
Kuzma’s numbers, in a vacuum, would seem to indicate progress in some areas and regression in others. He’s bumped his scoring up half a point to 16.6 per game, but his rebounding is down from 6.3 to 4.8. His overall shooting has risen two and a half points to 47.5 percent, but his 3-point shooting has dropped more than 6 percent to 30.2.
Part of it, of course, is simply the growing pains of a young player. And then there’s the huge adjustment inherent in suddenly becoming part of the LeBron James cabal.
While fans can’t see it, of course, players and coaches maintain that the effort a player is willing to put in behind the scenes is a better indicator of where’ll go than simple raw statistics.
Lakers coach Luke Walton said at Friday’s pregame shootaround at the UCLA Health Training Center that while Kuzma has surely benefitted from being around basketball savants such as James and Rajon Rondo, most of the second-year forward’s success can simply be directly attributed to his own stellar work ethic.
“Well, Kuz has been a great worker ever since we’ve had him,” Walton said. “He continues to work.”
That said, he acknowledges there’s a big benefit to be gained from sharing a workspace with a four-time Most Valuable Player. Kuzma agreed, noting that, no matter what the numbers say, he can’t help but make progress by listening to LeBron.
“I’ve learned so much in the two, three months that he’s been here,” Kuzma said. “Every single day, coming in and learning how to take care of your body; even on the court, learning little aspects of the game that I’d never really thought of before.”
Meanwhile, Rondo, who is recovering from hand surgery recalled that, on a trip back to Kentucky a few years ago, he met and was instantly impressed with a certain guard from Louisville.
“I would go back to the gym, and it was maybe 1 or 2 in the morning, and [Mitchell] was always the guy there working,” Rondo said. “He would love to play 1-on-1 a lot. I didn’t know who he was until he transferred to Louisville, but once he got there, his work ethic stood out to me.”
Western Conference roulette
Before the season started, the Jazz were thought to be Western Conference elites, while the Lakers — depending on whom you asked — ranged from fringe contenders to playoff wannabes. Entering Friday’s slate of games, the Lakers sat seventh in the West, two games back of first-place Memphis, while the Jazz were another 2.5 back in 13th place — a mere half-game ahead of 14th-place Minnesota.
That alone, the Lakers said, was reason enough not to even consider the Jazz’s recent struggles heading into this matchup.
“There’s definitely added importance in where you can be the [No.] 2 seed one week and the 13 seed the next week. Our guys are aware of that,” Walton said. “… Two [games] out of first, two out 13, 14 — this is wild, but it’ll make for an entertaining, fun season.”
That’s why, even with the Jazz scuffling more than anyone anticipated, no one is taking anything for granted.
“I thought they were gonna come out a little bit hotter this year. Last year, they could kinda sneak up on people; I think this year, everybody knows they’re gonna be a great team and knows how [good] they really are,” Kuzma said. “I’m sure they’ll figure it out — they got a great coach, great players on their team. They got all of our attention tonight, for sure.”