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Magic Johnson says critics have fueled Kyle Kuzma to take his game to the next level this season

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Lakers sophomore Kyle Kuzma is coming off of a promising rookie campaign, but some still doubt how good he can be. Magic Johnson says Kuzma is focused on proving them wrong.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Even after a season’s worth of headlines and effusive praise, Kyle Kuzma is still somehow a wildcard. With players who come out of nowhere like he did in his first year with the Los Angeles Lakers, there’s a wait-and-see attitude to find out whether the clock will strike midnight on a Cinderella story, or if this is the new reality. If you go by the noise surrounding Kuzma’s offseason, it’s definitely closer to the latter.

According to just about everyone who’s spent any time at all around Kuzma, he’s put in a ton of time to transform his game in just about every way. Magic Johnson was asked during Thursday about the second-year swingman, and apparently all that work was paying dividends — until a certain someone showed up.

“For a week, nobody in this gym could touch Kyle Kuzma because he just lit it up for a whole week until LeBron came back (laughs),” Johnson joked. “He thought he was LeBron until LeBron showed up.”

Is LEBRON JAMES A BAD TEAMMATE FOR NOT ALLOWING KUZMA TO BELIEVE IN HIMSELF??? MY COLUMN:

In all seriousness, it makes sense that Kuzma would play well in a pickup setting — until that LeBron guy shows up. His skillset is the kind that would jump out at anyone watch that type of game.

But Kuzma’s skillset (scoring) is also the type to get picked apart more than any other, but that’s okay, because Johnson thinks that critics have motivated Kuzma.

”Kuz is a different guy. Man... man... He got mad because he wasn’t in the top 100, so I’m glad they didn’t put him in the top 100 so he can keep working hard. It’s that type of drive that we have from these players,” Johnson said.

For the record, Johnson was probably referring to Sport’s Illustrated’s top 100 player rankins (which Kuzma didn’t crack). Kuzma was 71st on ESPN’s similar list.

The Lakers really seem to think Kuzma can take a step forward next year despite being an older rookie. One thing that really stood out during Johnson and Rob Pelinka’s presser was the amount of time Kuzma has spent working on the mental aspect of the game, especially on the defensive end.

Kuzma has the tools (quick feet, athleticism, coordination, some length) to be a decent defender. Chances are he’ll never be elite on that end, but all he really needs to be is average so that combined with his offensive abilities, he can be a net-positive player.

When considering the likelihood he makes those strides, I’d point to the improvement Kuzma showed over the course of his rookie season, dating back even to summer league.

At each stage of the season (Vegas, preseason, various points in the regular season), Kuzma seemed to add something to his game. That consistent improvement would lead one to believe he can translate that to the other side of the ball.

Still, the larger point here is the multiple accounts of Kuzma’s work ethic. Throughout the offseason, we got several examples of people who spent time with him and walked away impressed by how hard he works, and how focused he is on improving. Let’s hope it all pays off.