The Los Angeles Lakers have a rookie sensation on their hands in Kyle Kuzma, and as each game passes, the number of believers grows exponentially. It only took nine games for Kuzma to earn his first starting nod, even if it was Larry Nance Jr. going down with a hand injury that cleared the way.
Kuzma didn’t waste the golden opportunity in front of him, going seven-of-eight from the field through the first half. He ended the night with 21 points and 13 rebounds, letting the Brooklyn Nets feel the pain of watching the draft pick they once owned the rights to flourish before their eyes.
Lakers head coach Luke Walton kept his decision on who would replace Nance Jr. close to the vest heading into the matchup. The starting power forward role was awared to Kuzma after Walton felt the Lakers needed to come out ready to roll.
“We needed energy from the get-go, and Kuzma always has energy was one of the reasons. Two, I think the more shooting we get around Zo the better Zo will be at being able to play at his pace and decide what he wants to do out there with the ball.
“Three, with Brooklyn's lineup and their injuries, they were going small,” Walton said when asked what the determining factors were in starting Kuzma.
The Lakers, coming off a tough road loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that was decided by a game-winning shot from Damian Lillard, had every reason to come in sluggish. Kuzma scored had tallied 17 points, five rebounds and one steal by halftime, and had no problem finding the fire to fuel him.
“I got my first NBA start, so it's pretty exciting,” Kuzma said after the game when asked how he responded so well after getting back in from Portland around 3 a.m. Friday.
Kyle clocked 39 minutes, in the second half of a back-to-back, and contributed from start to finish. Even if the brunt of his scoring came early in the game. There was no question as to whether Walton made the right call starting him.
“I hopefully won't play him 40 minutes night in and night out, but I couldn't find guys that were ready to go tonight,” Walton said. ”I said it's about us building habits, even more so than winning ball games, so let's not just find a way to win, but let's keep playing the way that we've been playing.”
It’s not just scoring points and playing with natural, contagious energy that has Coach Luke wanting to find ways to shovel minutes to Kuzma. He’s becoming a vocal leader of the Lakers’ much-improved defense.
“I think what makes him so versatile is one, at college, watching tape on him he played a lot of switching four and was kind of the defensive captain of that Utah team he was on, so he's used to talking a lot,” Waltopn added.
“Coach Kuz” is a thing, no doubt. When you’re watching the Lakers play, keep an eye out for moments like these, which are so common they were already chopped up as an observation on my hard drive:
“He works so hard, all the coaches think very highly of him, so I think everyone just likes him and wants him to succeed, and he plays really hard all the time. It's an easy way to earn the respect of everyone when you do that,” Walton concluded.
Coach Luke also wouldn’t commit to Kuzma being the permanent starting power forward until Nance Jr. returns, but if he continues to play like this, is there any reason to slow down Kuzma? When you’re riding the hot hand, sometimes you have to let it play out.
And as for the fans who believe in the NBA’s most surprising rookie? Keep letting him know you’ve got his back, because he hears it loud and clear when you’re screaming “KUUUUUZ!”
“I really appreciate it,” Kuzma said. ”It's awesome to have fan support. Not too many players can have the whole arena do that in their NBA career, so I love it and I really appreciate it.”
*All quotes transcribed via Lakers.com