The 2017-18 rookie class is looking good. Really good.
There are 10 youngsters averaging in double figures through the first three weeks of the season, six averaging four-plus assists, and six averaging at least six rebounds.
Most of that production is coming from lottery picks like No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, No. 3 pick Jayson Tatum, No. 9 pick Dennis Smith, Jr. or (2016) No. 1 pick Ben Simmons.
And then there’s the No. 27 pick, Kyle Kuzma.
He’s putting up 14.8 points on 52.2 percent field goals with 6.5 boards in 30.0 minutes per game, continuing an upward trajectory that Lakers scouts noticed during his time at Utah that continued through the NBA combine, the Summer League in Vegas* and the preseason.
Lakers.com digital whiz J Diaz coined the term “Kuz Control” early in Vegas, turning into #KuzControl on @Lakers as Kuzma started filling up box scores.
We sat down with Kuzma in a hotel ballroom on a recent road trip to detail how he got to this point, starting in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.
Below is a transcription of the conversation:
MT: OK Kyle, let’s start at the beginning. What was it like growing up in Flint?
Kuzma: It’s a pretty violent place, with a lot of temptation. There are a lot of gangs, and it’s a bad city to grow up in. But that made me who I am today. It made me a tough person, mentally and physically. I grew up with my mom (Karri), dad (Larry), brother (Andre, 17) and sister (Briana, 20), and we moved around a lot throughout the city due to our financial situation. But my mom made ends meet, and made sure we had a roof over our heads, food and stuff like that. Pretty much all the rest of my (extended) family lives in Flint, too.
MT: You usually don’t gain much perspective on where you grew up until you experience other places, right? When did you start to become more aware of how difficult things were in Flint?
Kuzma: You’re really just a product of your environment. You grow up there and just don’t know any different. But when you started traveling places for AAU tournaments, you start noticing that things are different in other places. Flint is a big, industrial city. But when I was growing up they had the recession, lead in the water and all this other stuff. The city was really depleted. It was like an urban war zone. There were always killings. It was top in murders per capita.
MT: So was basketball your vehicle to something different?
Kuzma: It was … sure, there’s a lot of negativity, but basketball is such a huge thing in my community. Flint has a very rich tradition in basketball.
MT: Charlie Bell, Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves…
Kuzma: Jeff Grayer back in the 1980’s. JaVale McGee. There’s a lot of guys. So when you grow up, you want to be one of those Flintstones. That’s the ticket out. It’s either you play basketball, are a rapper, or you’re just in the streets. Basketball was my key. Plus, I wanted to see more of the world. I didn’t want to live there my entire life like a lot of my family did. I didn’t want to grow up, get a job, have kids, stay in Flint. I didn’t want to do that.
MT: Along those lines, how much of this was self-driven?
Kuzma: I’ve always been self-motivated. I have a very high love for the game. My mom would always drop me off at the YMCA downtown in Flint, and I’d stay there all day. If she couldn’t take me, I’d take the bus there and be there until she’d pick me up when she got off work. I’ve always had the love for basketball.
MT: What are your earliest memories of basketball?
Kuzma: Of course I had a hoop in my living room when I was really young. Little Tikes. But in our first house, we had one in the driveway, and I’d be out there every single day after school and all summer. My hoop was the neighborhood hoop, so everybody would come over to play. Eventually we had to move to the street because the driveway got full.
MT: What part of the city did you live in?
Kuzma: Well it depends, because we probably moved 14 times before I was 16. Went to different schools. There isn’t really a good part of the city, but my first hoop was on the south side.
MT: You mentioned all the violence and the gangs. There are plenty of stories about athletes getting shielded from that as someone with a chance to make it in sports. Did you experience that?
Kuzma: You’re right, that is sometimes the case. For me, I was a good kid. I never got into trouble. I was mature from a sense when I was younger and I knew right from wrong. I tried to stay away from that even though my friends grew into it. Basketball was a sanctuary, a safe haven for me.
MT: Does it ever keep you up at night thinking about these kids in Flint now, many still without good, clean water to drink, that feel like their only options are – as you described – basketball or music? All the kids that don’t have your talent level?
Kuzma: It definitely keeps me up. It may sound cliché, but if I didn’t have basketball, I don’t know where I’d be. This is just what I do. I wake up and go to sleep thinking about basketball. It’s always in my head, so I can’t necessarily say what I’d be doing if I didn’t have it. I feel like a lot of kids in urban areas don’t have a main emphasis on education.
MT: What was your experience with school?
Kuzma: Parts of Michigan, like Flint, have some of the worst school systems. The poorest. It’s sad to say. Even when I was growing up there were four high schools in the city*. Now, there is there is only one. The city is really dying.
*Flint’s population is approximately 97,000.
MT: It’s depressing. Is your family still in Flint?
Kuzma: Well, I moved them to a condo in the suburbs when I got drafted. To a town called Grand Blanc. It’s a nice area, with a private high school. Basically, I got myself situated in L.A. after I got drafted, got a car here, and then got them situated.
MT: Do you recognize how few people in the world are able to take care of their family like that at age 22?
Kuzma: For sure. There’s only 450 NBA players. I don’t take it for granted. One of the main things I want to do is make sure my family is straight so I can focus on my profession. I want to keep that support going for years. Everything can be taken away with a bad decision, so I’m just trying to stay solid.
MT: I’m guessing you learned some of that responsibility from your mom?
Kuzma: Yeah, she was always working multiple jobs. A lot of times, my grandmother was there to watch us or have us at her house. My mom worked at a video store … an Italian restaurant … dental offices … on an assembly line at General Motors … massage therapy. All kinds of things. Constantly working. Seeing her bust her behind to make sure we had stuff on our backs before she did. That gave me no excuse to not do what I’m supposed to do.
MT: And your dad?
Kuzma: Truck driver. Mainly just that.
MT: OK, let’s get more into the basketball. When did you first realize you had a shot to play in the NBA?
Kuzma: I always thought I was going to be in the NBA. So I always had (the dream) whether I was watching it, or even playing 2K. But when I got to prep school (Rise Academy in Philadelphia) and played against higher ranked guys, I knew I had a shot. My skill set got better and everything, being there.
MT: Most Lakers fans hadn’t seen much of you prior to Summer League. But it was clear you had a versatile skill set that had been polished off somewhere, which you’re saying started to come around in prep school?
Kuzma: Yeah, I got a lot more confident at prep school. I wasn’t highly recruited before then, and felt like I was overlooked. I only had one offer. But things took off.
MT: You had several D1 offers … why did you choose Utah?
Kuzma: It was the first high major school that offered me, and I wanted to play in the bright lights in the PAC-12. Be on TV a lot. It was really family oriented, too. Nice, clean city. Totally different from Flint. I needed something like that to grow and mature.
MT: How did your game develop at Utah?
Kuzma: Utah helped me a lot. In high school, I was a point guard. I wasn’t 6’9″ at the time; I hadn’t hit a growth spurt. In prep school I played the 2 or 3 mostly, but I was almost always a guard. Once I got to Utah, I played the 4 and the 5. It completed my game in a sense. I already had a lot of guard stuff, but when I got there, I learned how to be a 4 and play like a big. And I wasn’t really a good defender my first two years of college, but eventually got better at that too.
MT: Do you remember how tall you were each year as you grew?
Kuzma: Freshman year: 5’9″. Sophomore year: 6’2″. Junior year: 6’5″; prep school: 6’7″. Freshman year: 6’9″.
MT: Maybe this is an obvious question, but can you specifically feel the game get easier every time you grow?
Kuzma: Oh yeah. Everything gets easier when you’re taller and longer. You can get your J off. Rebound better. Use the length to cover more distance defensively or block shots. See over the defense.
MT: I remember talking to Lakers Director of Scouting Jesse Buss about you and how much he liked your game at Utah, and how things progressed at the combine. You likely had no idea what NBA teams were thinking at the time, other than looking at the mock drafts, which are only so accurate. What was going through your head?
Kuzma: Well, you can backtrack a little bit. I put up numbers my junior year. I felt like I was being overlooked in the conference, that there were a lot of guys that weren’t having as good of a season as me. As the season ended, I still wasn’t on many mock drafts, but I knew I was a lot better than some of the guys I was seeing. I’d play against guys I felt like I killed, but would see them getting talked about more. I thought, ‘Let me get on a stage with them in pre-draft workouts and we’ll see how it goes.’ I was mostly being listed either in the late second round or undrafted, and I just knew I was better than that. So I put my head down and worked. It paid off.
MT: There was chatter around here at least that you were killing in the scrimmages. What happened?
Kuzma: During the game, I hit my first three … then I got super confident. I just wanted to keep going. I wanted to keep playing well, showing well. Your first impression can be your last impression, so I wanted to go out with a bang. Playing that well, having good interviews at the combine helped me.
MT: It would have been comforting for you to know how much the Lakers liked you and were thinking about you late in the first round, but that wasn’t really on your radar, right?
Kuzma: Not a chance. When you’re in school, you think the mock drafts have the inside scoop. But a lot of times they don’t.
MT: So, every draft hopeful is basically just refreshing mocks like a madman, right?
Kuzma: Always. Especially during the pre-draft process. All you’re doing is working out for teams and talking to your agent. You have nothing else to look forward to except the draft in June. But I did have an interview with the Lakers, and I got a sense that they liked me. I knew I had a connection with Magic (Johnson) just from being from Michigan. We got to talk a little about that. And just the vibe from Luke (Walton) and (GM) Rob (Pelinka) in that setting gave me some optimism.
MT: So by draft night, what were you thinking?
Kuzma: By that time I kinda knew I was going in the first round, even (if the mock drafts still hadn’t caught up). I had 18 workouts and I didn’t have a single bad one. I had the sense that somebody would take me. I thought I had the best chance going to the Lakers because of the vibe I had from them. But I knew the Spurs liked me as well. I had a workout there and I knew they definitely liked me. I killed that workout, and talked to them. And the dialogue with my agent (supported that).
MT: And during the draft…
Kuzma: I was cool on draft night. Watching it was cool. And I watched the re-run the next morning to see what they were saying about me. On the ESPN broadcast, (it was) said that it was a little shock that I went there. Everybody thought I was going to be on the board much later. I kinda took that on the chin, and said, ‘OK, well, I gotta do it at summer league now.’ Right after that, I took a flight to San Diego to work with my trainer and start getting ready for summer league.
MT: So you haven’t changed much, people are just noticing more and more?
Kuzma: Yeah, I feel like I’m the same, just trying to be me and stay loyal to working hard and doing what I gotta do. Not everybody is going to love your game, but I try to just do that. I did what I did at summer league* and people thought, ‘It’s just summer league.’ Did what I did in preseason and they said, ‘It’s just preseason**.’ Now we’re in the regular season and I’m doing the same thing. You have to prove people wrong.
*Kuzma finished fourth in Vegas in scoring (21.9 per game), adding 6.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals on 51.4 percent field goals and hitting 24 of 50 threes, as well as earning championship game MVP honors after a 30-point finale.
**Kuzma led the NBA in total preseason points scored, just ahead of Damian Lillard and James Harden, though Kuzma did play more minutes.
MT: What have you noticed about the difference between veteran NBA players and the younger players you saw in Vegas?
Kuzma: You definitely notice. Playing against rookies is a lot different than playing against vets. I don’t really have personal battles with rookies or look at them like I have to be better, because I want to be one of the top dogs in the league one day. My focus is on those top guys at my position more so than a rookie.
MT: Anybody specific?
Kuzma: Any of the top guys at the 3 or the 4. That’s what I’m looking at as I get better and better.
MT: Where do you still have to grow the most?
Kuzma: Defensively, I have to improve. All great players, for the most part, are good defenders too. I want to clean up my handle. Get stronger. Those are the things that will help me out in the long run.
MT: OK, I know you need to get to your gameday nap, so final question: where would you have drafted yourself?
Kuzma: Definitely in the Top 5.