USA Basketball is set to tip off its training camp for the 2019 FIBA World Cup on Monday, and while Klay Thompson won’t be among the players participating due to the ACL injury he sustained during the NBA Finals, there is one player in particular that he thinks has a really good chance to impress in his stead: Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma.
Thompson told Arash Markazi of The L.A. Times why he’s such a big fan of Kuzma’s game:
“He’s perfect for today’s game with his ability to score on the perimeter,” Thompson said. “He’s really like a three man playing the four. He has to improve his catch-and-shoot ability a little more, obviously playing with LeBron [James] and A.D. [Anthony Davis] now, but I think he’s going to take on that third superstar role and really take off with it. He’s a very hard worker, which is what I like about him.”
Kuzma is a smooth scorer already in year two, and his ability to get hot without touching the ball much is something the Lakers could use more of next season. Now that he won’t be being asked to score as much and can instead attack weakened defenses after his star teammates, he might be a devastating third option in a way that resembles — if not fully replicates — the role Thompson plays offensively for Golden State.
And as to the work ethic Thompson mentioned, he thinks it will allow Kuzma to get even better now that he’ll have the chance to at the very least spend a training camp with coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr, as well as play against some of the best players in the world in a different environment as part of the World Cup, should Kuzma make the team.
“I know him playing for Team USA is going to pay huge dividends for him because that’s what it did for me. … That was the turning point in my career, playing against international superstars. If he goes out there and plays hard and puts the team on his shoulders, that’s going to give him so much confidence coming into this season like it did for myself in 2014.”
Thompson first played for the senior U.S. national team during the 2014 World Cup, and while he was a pretty good player going into that run, he’s right that it does appear to have helped him break out. Thompson averaged then-career-highs in nearly every significant statistical category during the 2014-15 season that followed, and now has gone on to become one of the best shooting guards the NBA has to offer.
He was 24 years old entering that season, the same age Kuzma is now.
Would Thompson have made that leap without Team USA? It’s possible — he is really good, after all — but he does seem to think that playing in the tournament helped him grow as a player, and we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that it could pay similar dividends for Kuzma, even if the results likely won’t look exactly the same.
We should note that Kuzma isn’t technically guaranteed to make the team’s 12-man roster for the World Cup, but as a counterpoint, look at the roster. With so many stars dropping out, Kuzma would seem to at least have a pretty good shot of making the team, and in addition to Thompson, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo seems to be a fan of Kuzma’s as well.
From a cursory glance at the roster, Team USA would seem to be in need of some scoring. If Kuzma can defend well enough to keep Popovich from nailing him to the bench, then he could get a real chance to blossom on a national stage. That will likely help his confidence, and getting pointers from a nearly universally well-regarded coaching staff likely won’t hurt him either.
There are quite a few reasons to think Kuzma might be in for a leap in year three of his career — with the chance to play a more natural supplementary scoring role behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis while also seeing his shooting take an uptick ranking highly among them — but Thompson may also have a point. Kuzma and Thompson are similar in the way they both seem uniquely focused on improving as players and soaking up knowledge wherever they can. If Kuzma can do so here, he might be in for improvement similar to the type that Thompson enjoyed in his first post-Team-USA year.