Still with Wizards, and with a new contract, former Ute Kyle Kuzma is ready to take on a leadership role

Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma (33) poses for a photograph during an NBA basketball media day, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

Washington • When the Washington Wizards traded Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis this offseason, their direction seemed clear. Then came a move that, under the circumstances, was a bit more curious.

Kyle Kuzma stayed with the Wizards on a four-year, $102 million deal.

Kuzma’s return meant the Wizards stopped short of completely breaking up their core, and the 6-foot-9 forward — coming off the best scoring season of his career — was willing to stay with a Washington team that isn’t expected to do much in 2023-24. The 28-year-old Kuzma is now the undisputed top player on the team, with all the challenges and opportunity that brings.

“This is a new role for me in my career, so naturally that’s very, very exciting,” Kuzma said. “It’s something that I’ve been waiting for my entire career.”

The former University of Utah standout was the Los Angeles Lakers’ second-leading scorer in 2018-19, their first season with LeBron James. Then they acquired Anthony Davis and won a championship in 2020, although Kuzma’s role wasn’t as big. Eventually, the Lakers traded him to Washington in the deal that sent Russell Westbrook to Los Angeles.

Kuzma has started every game he’s played for the Wizards the past two seasons, and he averaged a career-high 21.2 points in 2022-23. Washington had a hard time keeping Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma healthy at the same time, so Kuzma had plenty of chances to be the focal point. Although that’s going to be a more nightly occurrence now.

“Most nights, I’m going to have No. 1, primary defenders on me,” he said. “That’s a challenge in itself. ... When you’re in the type of position I’m in, you have to produce every night.”

Kuzma declined his $13 million player option for this season, having clearly earned a bigger commitment. The Wizards had seen his value up close. However, this isn’t a team that’s likely to contend for a title in the immediate future. Washington missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

Kuzma said he wants to have a lasting impact on a franchise, and this is a place he can do that. It’s also a spot where he can prove himself as a leader and an all-around player. The Wizards will certainly be looking to him as a face of the franchise and the centerpiece going forward.

At media day Monday there were some chuckles at the idea that Deni Avdija, who at age 22 is entering his fourth season, is now the longest-tenured member of the Wizards. But make no mistake: Kuzma — heading into his seventh NBA season — is expected to take on the role of a veteran leader now.

“I got really close with Derek Jeter this summer, and really just asked him a lot of different questions,” Kuzma said. “You have to lead by example. ... If you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, how can you expect somebody else to let you lead them? So I got to be on my Ps and Qs, locked in.”

Washington went 35-47 last season with Beal and Porzingis. FanDuel Sportsbook has set an over/under of 23 1/2 victories for 2023-24. Kuzma is aware there will be some growing pains. The Wizards welcome Jordan Poole and Tyus Jones into the fold this season, and Kuzma expects Washington to play at a high tempo and be fun to watch.

“Much, much faster,” he said. “It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to be less about plays and stuff and more about just concepts and understanding the nuances of the game, and I think it’s going to be great because of our young team. We may not be the best half-court team right away to start the season — a lot of young teams really aren’t — but we’re going to get up and down fast.”