LAS VEGAS- As more and more teams continue to play small ball in the NBA, versatile wings who can play multiple positions on offense — and guard them on defense — have been at a premium. It’s why the Golden State Warriors added Kevin Durant to an already historically good team, and it’s why Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got $18 million for one year of work with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kyle Kuzma isn’t close to being any of those guys yet, but his superlative showing in Las Vegas Summer League offers hope he could be part of the Lakers’ future as the team looks to build up its own stable of versatile, switchy wings.
If he has his way, he’ll be more than that.
“I have a chip on my shoulder,” Kuzma said. “I just have great confidence in myself. I feel like I'm the best player every time I step on the floor.”
Aside from the presence of Lonzo Ball — and his ascent has been partially because of the Lakers’ other phenomenal rookie — Kuzma has often looked like the best player on the floor for the Lakers, and general manager Rob Pelinka says the grit Kuzma mentions is in large part what led the Lakers to believe he could be this good.
"Kyle is a tough, tough kid,” Pelinka said. “He had a Flint, Michigan upbringing. A really tough upbringing. He even shared with us at one point he was homeless for a minute. [He’s] just as a kid who's faced insurmountable odds and stood and challenged them and overcome them.
“Developing that character has given him a confidence, and you can just see it. He's not backing down from any of the other opponents in summer league,” Pelinka continued. “He plays with an unbelievable level of confidence and a chip on his shoulder.”
That chip hasn’t weighed Kuzma down. Instead, it’s helped him ascend towards being a top-10 scorer in Las Vegas (his 20.5 points per game ranks sixth among players to play in more than one game) and first on the Lakers other than Brandon Ingram, who only played in the team’s first game.
Kuzma has done so with a mixture of hustle and skill. He and Ball have developed incredible chemistry in transition that Kuzma says has been there since the first time they played five-on-five together, evidenced by the multiple outlet passes Ball throws him open on each game to set up easy scores.
“He can really run the court well. When you have a point guard like Lonzo, you can just sprint down, you're going to get two or three layups a game,” said Lakers summer league head coach Jud Buechler.
"I just run the floor and his head's up,” Kuzma puts it succinctly.
He would already be an intriguing prospect if he was just an active scorer in transition who could switch onto multiple positions defensively, but Kuzma has been so much more than that in Las Vegas.
Kuzma has shot an incredible (and possibly unsustainable) 45 percent on 3-pointers in summer league, and his shooting has unlocked the rest of his more diverse than expected offensive game.
“When people have closed out on him, he's been able to go by them and finish at the basket,” Buechler said. "He's had an incredible summer for us.”
Kuzma has drawn those closeouts with his flame-spewing from behind the arc, and he’s attacked them with a lightning-quick pump fake he’s used to get into the teeth of opposing defenses to score on layups or draw fouls. Kuzma has also flashed a nasty spin move out of the post that’s set up dunks and layups.
If that doesn’t sound like the skill set of a traditional power forward, it’s because Kuzma says he isn’t.
"I wouldn't call myself a four. I would call myself a basketball player who can play multiple positions and can guard multiple positions too,” Kuzma said.
Kuzma has played mostly at the four and five in Las Vegas, but his shooting and lateral quickness might allow him to sneak into the rotation at small forward as well. Whatever position it’s at, the way the Lakers rave about him make it seem like a certainty he’ll be in the rotation as a rookie despite the team’s crowded frontcourt.
“He is a postionless basketball player who plays with great energy and great confidence, and you can see that here during the summer league,” Pelinka said. “He's just a tremendous talent. We're so proud of our scouting department for doing a great job of evaluating him.”
The Lakers scouting department and Kuzma himself may be the only ones not surprised by the No. 27 pick’s performance in Las Vegas. Especially Kuzma, who made it clear he’s not surprised by his success. It was all part of his plan.
"I think my expectation was just to come in and try to dominate and try to impose my will,” Kuzma said. “I feel like I've got to go out there and prove something every single night.”
Summer league is just summer league, but Kuzma can only play against the competition that’s in front of him. As the Lakers prepare for a chance at the summer league title Monday with most of the focus on Lonzo Ball’s transcendence, what Kuzma has proved is that he could play a huge part in the Lakers future as well.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com. and Basketball-Reference.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.