Kyle Kuzma is more than the Lakers’ other rookie — he’s got game
Utah product talks about his rise from obscurity, growing up in Flint and playing with Lonzo Ball
WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the other notable Los Angeles Lakers rookie started to run off the Capital One Arena floor about two hours before tipoff, fans of all ages began yelling, “Kyle!” and “Kooz-Ma!” to get his attention. Kyle Kuzma immediately stopped, came back and gladly signed every autograph and picture with his new fans, who probably had no clue who he was six months ago.
“I am handling the attention pretty well,” Kuzma said before a game against the host Washington Wizards last week. “I’ve never been one to live up to the hype. I’ve never had it before ever in my life. I’m just doing what got me here. Be humble. Stay hungry.”
Kuzma, a native of Flint, Michigan, didn’t get recruited by his home schools Michigan and Michigan State. The former University of Utah star wasn’t invited to Brooklyn, New York, for the 2017 NBA draft and was projected to land in the second round. Through it all, the 22-year-old remained confident in his basketball ability that has transferred from Flint to the Pac-12 Conference to NBA summer league to a month into the regular season.
“Anything is possible,” Kuzma said. “If you believe in yourself and you work as hard as possible, anything can happen. I was a 5-8 point guard my freshman year in high school, and no one talked about me. Now, a lot of people in the NBA have taken notice.”
While the Lakers have one of the NBA’s most heralded rookies in No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, Hall of Famer Charles Barkley recently called Kuzma the best rookie on the team. And Lakers and NBA fans are quickly becoming aware of the player with the Hungarian surname. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is averaging 15.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
Kuzma sat down with The Undefeated to talk about his rise from obscurity, growing up mixed-race in impoverished Flint, the water crisis in his hometown, his relationship with Ball and more.
What has been the biggest change in your life of late?
Everywhere I go now, people notice you. That’s the biggest thing. Prior to this, I could walk around and no one knew me. Now I have to move a little differently, especially in L.A. People know my name now; a lot of people know me.
Nothing has really happened. It’s just average type of fame. Everywhere I go, people want a picture or to talk to you. That’s the biggest thing to adjust to because I never really had that before.
How was your unheralded recruiting process out of high school, and were you motivated by it?
I have always been a self-motivated guy. I never needed something to kick-start me to do something. But at the same time, I was a little disappointed. For me, I think every time I am on the floor I am one of the best players out there. That’s just how my mentality is.
During my recruiting process, that wasn’t the case because of the schools that I had. I wasn’t a Duke, Kentucky kind of guy. I never got that kind of love. But everything happens for a reason.
You weren’t in the McDonald’s All-American High School All-Star Game or played in any game like that. What was the biggest high school thing you were involved with?
I went to a Reebok camp. It was in Philly. That was the biggest thing.
Did you play on a big-time AAU team?
I didn’t play on a big-time team. I jumped to small teams. One team. There was one team called Dorian’s Pride. I played for them in two or three tournaments. They were a Reebok team at the time. Besides that, I played for my prep school’s AAU team. We didn’t really travel, just played around the area. My recruitment wasn’t big-time because of those factors.
Was Utah the biggest school recruiting you?
Pretty much. My top schools were Utah, Penn State, Iowa State. But everything happens for the right reason. I think I picked the right school.
Being from Flint, were you a big Michigan and Michigan State fan? Did those schools recruit you?
Big-time. Both. I really wanted to stay in Michigan, if I could’ve. But they didn’t really recruit me as high as they had other guys. I took an unofficial visit to Michigan State, and Tom Izzo didn’t necessarily know who I was exactly. I was on campus. I just went up there to play open gym with their guys.
I was on campus, so of course I was going to get to meet him. But when I met him he didn’t necessarily know who I was. I was just there.
Have you met Izzo since then?
Never. I’ve met some of their assistant coaches since then, after my sophomore year at Utah, and went [home]. They were like, ‘We should have recruited you harder.’ That’s how it goes.
How was Utah life and being in Mormon country?
It wasn’t necessarily hard. It was more like a culture shock from growing up in Flint, Michigan, where it was predominantly all black and the environment was very impoverished. You go out to Salt Lake City and you won’t even see a Gatorade bottle on the side of the street. It was super clean, and the people there were so polite.
The overall background and feel of Salt Lake was completely different. It took some time to adjust to that. But once I got used to it, it definitely helped shape me into who I am today.
How tough was it growing up in Flint?
It was tough. Flint, Michigan, was very tough to live in. A lot of temptations on the streets. There was a lot of negativity with the violence. There was so much growing up. I never really traveled much. You see a lot. Every liquor store had someone selling drugs. On my street, specifically, there were houses on one side, and across the street there were three houses and then maybe every other house was burned down.
It was really like a Third World country type of feel with how it looked and depleted it was. It made me who I am.
Did you ever get treated differently in Flint because you are a mixed-race kid?
I got, ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you black?’ I was a mixed kid in a black area. You are raised black and all your friends [are black], but you’re white so you can’t necessarily do certain things.
Did you have any race identity problems?
I wouldn’t say I did. I went to a white high school for my freshman year. That was different after growing up being in predominantly black schools and being in that culture. Then you go to a white school and it’s totally different with how you act, and you’re judged more.
When the NBA draft evaluation process got going, did you feel like you had to sell yourself at the NBA pre-draft camp in Chicago?
I felt like I had to sell myself everywhere. Coming out of college, they kind of pegged me as a second-round to undrafted kind of guy. I didn’t really have that many options. Everybody was telling me to go back to school. Literally, everybody did. But I knew I was a lot better than everyone projected me to be. So going through the draft process I was on a mission, super focused. I had to come in every interview, every workout, and pretty much smash it.
I was like, ‘Hopefully they will draft me.’ And it worked out that way.
What was the determining factor in you entering the draft after your junior year at Utah?
It was really during the season. I averaged 16 [points] and nine [rebounds] last year. I played a lot of guys that were highly rated, and I played well against those guys. I was thinking, ‘If these guys are on the draft board, why can’t I be?’ I took a leap of faith.
So why did a lot of NBA teams miss on you? (Kuzma was drafted 27th overall in the 2017 NBA draft by the Brooklyn Nets, and his draft rights were dealt to the Lakers on draft night along with center Brook Lopez for guard D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov.)
Man, I don’t know. I don’t know. There was a lot of hype with a lot of guys. I was at Utah for three years. I played behind a lot of NBA draft picks, and I don’t know why they missed on me. Scouting departments aren’t that tight, I guess. I don’t know. Who knows? A lot of folks are biting themselves now though.
Where were you draft night? What was your party like?
I was home [in Flint]. It was crazy. I had like 70-80 people there at my mom’s friend’s house. We had a small apartment at the time. We couldn’t fit that many people, so we went to my mom’s friend’s house. Half the people I didn’t know. It was a community-type of deal. You could come and show up. It was crazy that night getting drafted in the first round after nobody thought I would.
What were your draft expectations?
My expectations were first round. I knew that all along. My agent had talked to teams at the beginning of the pre-draft camp. A lot of teams were saying potential second round. But I said, ‘No way, I’m going in the first round.’ I felt it. I wasn’t told that, but I felt it. I was like, ‘I am going to show these guys, and we will see where the chips land.’
How did you find out you were drafted in the first round?
TV, really. A team may call your agent and say, ‘You’re going to get drafted by the Lakers.’ I found out the way the rest of the country found out, through TV. My agent was on the call, but he didn’t want to tell me. So I found out on TV.
The whole draft night I was kind of like, ‘I am not going to be anxious.’ As those picks started going and going, your legs get kind of weak. I’m waiting. You never know. But once it happened, I just put my head down. It was crazy. It was a big sigh of relief. Hard work really pays off.
Did you tear up?
I didn’t tear up at that moment. But that night, sitting back in my bedroom, I did. I was just finally saying, ‘I am going to be in the NBA.’ It was a lifelong dream, and I really wanted to do it. As a little kid, I really thought I could do it no matter the naysayers. So to say that I did it was pretty special to me.
What was your first day like as a Laker walking into the new practice facility and meeting team president Magic Johnson?
It was definitely surreal. Any time you can stand in front of Magic Johnson is pretty crazy. He is one of the greatest players of all time. He lights up a room. The first time I saw him my grin was ear to ear. Being there was pretty crazy, especially walking into the practice facility.
It’s one thing to be a Milwaukee Buck, no disrespect to them. But to be a Los Angeles Laker is totally different.
Why are you succeeding in the NBA so fast?
My hard work. My work ethic. My confidence. The way I approach this. I try not to act like a rookie. I try to be like a 10-year vet in how I approach things and my mentality toward this game. I want to be special. I feel like that is how I get there.
Where did you get your confidence from?
Just my work ethic. I’ve always been pretty confident in my game and myself, but I feel like when you work so hard it eliminates fear of things and failing. It’s really my work ethic and what I put in.
How are you taking the water situation in your hometown of Flint? (Some residents were exposed to high levels of lead in the drinking water because of poor water treatment.)
For my family, it affected them at first. Once I got drafted I was able to move them away from the city into the suburbs. At first they were definitely affected. There was a lot of lead in the water, and if you lived in the city it affected all things in life. You got to take showers in the water. You had to brush your teeth with bottled water. If you want to cook, you have to use bottled water. It is sad because we go out of our way to help so many Third World countries, but we got a dying city that is kind of helpless.
Is there anything you can do to help the situation?
The biggest thing I can do is to spread awareness and just help our community in the offseason in any kind of way when I’m there. Eventually, as my career goes on, I feel I can do a lot more.
When it started, a lot of the water was brown. A lot of water in Flint is cloudy anyway. It’s pretty tragic that the government kind let it go about and let it kill people within the city, especially a city that is predominantly black. It’s kind of a genocide.
Have any celebrities in Los Angeles taken notice of you that surprised you?
There have been a couple. [L.A. native and Seattle Seahawks star] Richard Sherman. That’s cool. Floyd Mayweather is a big fan of mine. That’s pretty cool because I’m a big Floyd fan and I found out he was a big fan of mine. That’s crazy.
How would you describe your relationship with Ball? Are you surprised how well he deals with the pressure and attention he receives?
Great relationship. We started getting to know each other in summer league, and now we are really close, not just on the court but off the court as well. And yes, he’s really steady in his demeanor, and I think that’s why he deals with it so well.