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The Kyle Kuzma star turn

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The gap between Kyle Kuzma’s reputation and his play is larger than that of almost any other player in the league.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Media Day Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of Lakers Media Day last week, legendary Southern California Sports broadcaster Jim Hill led off the proceedings by asking about Kyle Kuzma. Not LeBron James, not Anthony Davis, but Kyle Kuzma.

Admittedly, Kuzma is dealing with an injury suffered during Team USA workouts that prompted the question. Nevertheless, it was interesting to have his be the first player name mentioned to start the Lakers season.

There are times when you listen to the Lakers talk about Kuzma, or see him palling around with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Las Vegas, and it seems like he’s the third member of the Big Three, the heir apparent to carry on the team’s storied legacy. The mythology of Kyle Kuzma in Los Angeles is ever present.

But in reality, Kuzma isn’t a star on the court, at least not yet. There is a very real dichotomy between his reputation and his play to date, and which end of that spectrum Kuzma lands closer to over the course of this season will go a long way to determining the fate of this Lakers team.

Kuzma hasn’t been able to participate in training camp thus far, but his injury itself represents how his star shines in the NBA. Not only was Kuzma invited to participate in Team USA back when multiple All-Stars were still expected to come to camp, he was considered a likely candidate to make the team before having to back out. Afterwards, Jerry Colangelo specifically cited Kuzma’s absence as a reason for the national team’s disappointing play during the World Cup.

This is the same Kuzma who has yet to post a positive plus-minus over a full season in the NBA, though he’s getting closer. Per Cleaning the Glass, Kuzma was minus-2.5 during the 2017-18 season and minus-0.9 last year. There’s that duality again: a player who has not consistently contributed to winning basketball at the professional level being courted for an international competition, and then being missed.

The Lakers appear to share Colangelo’s opinion of Kuzma’s game. They kept him rather than any of his other young teammates under contract. The team probably could have surrendered fewer draft assets if they were willing to send Kuzma to New Orleans; instead, they fought to keep him.

His fit on this new Lakers roster is unclear. Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis excel at playing power forward, which is where Kuzma has spent about 80 percent of his minutes during the last two seasons. He will also more than likely be coming off the bench after starting 68 of his 70 games in 2018-19, but he will have to acclimate to that new role and his new teammates quickly given that he won’t be playing during the bulk of the preseason.

That is a lot of uncertainty for a player entering his third season, especially one who is playing with mostly veterans. The Lakers have boasted about their ability to move quickly through the learning process given the number of experienced players on the roster, and that would theoretically leave Kuzma even further behind.

James was willing to acknowledge the uncertainty of what Kuzma will look like in a new context, but also made it clear that he knows what to expect from Kuzma himself.

“We know what we have in Kuz, but until we can put him out on the floor with what we have because it’s a new bunch, then it’s the unknown,” James said after practice Thursday. “But we know what we have in Kuz. So if you ask me what we’re missing, we’re missing Kuz.”

Another strange difference of opinion: A team’s youngest rotation player misses the majority of camp, and the team’s leader is confident he won’t miss a beat when he returns.

While Kuzma sits out the start of camp, the spotlight remains on him outside of basketball as well. He just earned a five-year shoe deal from Puma, one that makes him one of the higher-profile athletes within the brand. The marketing campaign has been aggressive in the city, and combined with his apparel ads, it’s hard to miss Kyle Kuzma’s face or name driving around Los Angeles.

Interestingly, the $20 million for Kuzma’s shoe deal comes out to a higher average annual figure than his NBA salary right now. There’s that dissonance again: Kuzma’s value off the court literally eclipsing his value on it.

There is a telling quote from Kuzma in that video: “If you can’t sell nothing, then nobody really cares about you.” Nothing could be truer of Kuzma’s arc in the NBA thus far.

The NBA community, and specifically this Lakers organization, cares deeply about Kuzma. This is a front office that has shown little loyalty to any of its non-superstar players over the last half-decade, save for Kuzma. He certainly outperformed his draft slot, though nothing about his career trajectory says he is on the way to becoming a superstar. And yet, because he dines with Jeanie Buss and gets mentored by Kobe Bryant and actively gives back to his hometown, he is treated like one.

Kuzma has sold himself as the perfect Laker, one who embodies the flash of Los Angeles while also being a hard worker and continuously improving. There may be players in his age range with more upside, but none who have taken advantage of their full skill set like Kuzma has.

The hope is for Kuzma to deliver on the basketball court this season the same way he has shined off of it. The Lakers will probably love him no matter what, but it would really help if at some point, his game matches his hype.

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