Las Vegas • Kyle Kuzma’s NBA dreams didn’t really extend to playing for Team USA as a kid, growing up in Flint, Michigan.
“You always think you’re going to be in the NBA, but you don’t really think about being with USA,” Kuzma said. “That just comes along with a successful journey. For me, all my hard work’s paid off.”
But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Kuzma’s even surprised himself. After all, that’s been the hallmark of his career, surprising first as a relatively unheralded high school recruit, then as a bigger-than-expected piece of the Utah men’s basketball team. Entering the NBA, he was initially slated to be a second-round pick, then surprised most observers by being drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers. And then, yes, once he made it to the league, he surprised even the team that drafted him by moving into the starting lineup in his rookie year.
Now that Kuzma’s “made it," so to speak, the expectations have changed: Now, it’s whether he can develop into a winning player, not just a scoring one. Yes, he scored 18.7 points and grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game last season, but the Lakers disappointed, even with LeBron James on the roster. Can Kuzma help drag the Lakers to true contention, now with Anthony Davis in tow?
It’s those same questions that are being asked by USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Gregg Popovich about Kuzma’s spot on the national team roster, not assured by any means. Can he beat out his competition — Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes and Marvin Bagley, along with options like Houston’s P.J. Tucker and Brooklyn’s Joe Harris? If so, he’ll need to show he can impact a game defensively and with making the right decision on offense, not just putting his head down to score.
But Kuzma, it seems, has the right attitude about his development on those things. For example, when he was asked how Team USA was developing over the course of the week, he first went to defense, not offense.
“Today was a bright spot for our team,” Kuzma said Thursday. “Starting on the defensive end is where you can really see the cohesiveness and chemistry really building. Today, we did a great job of trusting each other and that is going to continue to build over time.”
Of course, defense isn’t only about working together, it’s also individual impact as well. But again, Kuzma said that was a focus of his in offseason workouts.
“Get in shape, that is one thing,” he said. “[It’s about] making an effort and trying to be physical and trusting my feet and watching film.”
Is Kuzma a finished product? Of course not. He still displayed some of last season’s weaknesses during Friday’s Blue-White scrimmage, one in which he scored seven points in nine minutes. He struggled to get a rhythm upon being inserted, including a turnover, but found his scoring game late in the fourth before being pulled to finish the contest. That included a punctuating dunk that excited fans, many of whom support the Lakers, given the audible “Kuuuuz” chants every time he touched the ball.
But that he was pulled late, avoiding garbage time, is probably a good sign for those reading the tea leaves in how Popovich sees him. And of course, that the team now travels to Los Angeles for a week gives Kuzma some home-court familiarity, though nowadays, seemingly the entire league works out in the L.A. area over the summer.
Regardless of whether he makes the team, that Kuzma is here at all is an upset. In China, playing for Team USA? Just one more opportunity for Kuzma to surprise and surpass expectations.