LOS ANGELES — Kyle Kuzma has been giving the Lakers a little bit of extra oomph lately.
Kuzma led the team in rebounds with 12 in their 129-102 win against the San Antonio Spurs, and came one board short of doing so in their recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers (he had 15 to Anthony Davis’ 16). Those are his two highest rebounding games of the season, both coming over the Lakers’ last three games. Monday was also the third-highest percentage Kuzma has shot from the field this season (63.6%, finishing with 18 points on 11 shots).
But rebounds and efficiency aside, Kuzma just seems to be playing with more energy on the court. Trying to make himself a part of things instead of letting the game come to him, and finding ways to be effective outside of just scoring. Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel said it’s not something the coaching staff asked Kuzma to do, and the natural appearance from the outside is that the third-year forward is trying to make one last argument that he can help this team before the Feb. 6 trade deadline at 12:00 p.m. PST.
According to Kuzma, however, that’s not exactly accurate.
“What is Thursday?” Kuzma said when asked by a reporter if his mind has wandered towards that day at all while he’s playing.
And while Kuzma not realizing that the trade deadline is Thursday somewhat strains credulity, he did claim that it really isn’t what’s fueled his play.
“I think it just kind of goes back to just self-reflecting over this past week. It’s been really tough for me with (Kobe Bryant’s death),” Kuzma said. “I think it was a good time for me to really just look back and reflect on what made Kob’ so great.”
“Everybody talks about the ‘Mamba Mentality’ of being a vicious scorer, looking to score, but that’s not even what that is. That mentality is to be tenacious, play with heart and be relentless at all times,” Kuzma continued. “Obviously, it’s a little bit tougher to navigate the scoring (this year), but I can play hard every possession on defense and rebound and just try to play to win. I think this past week has been good for me just to realize some things and see where my eggs are.”
Longtime Lakers fans will remember how Bryant used to try to affect the game in ways outside of his shooting as well, with his most memorable rebounding effort coming when he snagged 15 boards in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals to help the Lakers grind out a truly hideous and gritty win even though his shot wasn’t falling.
The team stakes aren’t nearly so high right now for the Lakers, but it’s hard not to see how they could be close to as big for Kuzma, personally, as he appears to be playing for his Lakers life, throwing his body around to make sure he gets to continue to wrap it in purple and gold every night.
Even if he claims that’s not where his head is at.
“I really don’t care, honestly. I can’t control it. If I get traded, I get traded. Don’t matter. I’m still going to play basketball. I’m still going to play the game I love. I’m still going to get paid, and I’m still going to just play the game,” Kuzma said.
“I mean, shoot, Kob’ would alway tell me ‘if they’re not talking about you, then you should be worried.’ And I’m the talk of the town.”
Kuzma has also been the talk of his coaches and teammates, albeit not for the same gossipy, rumor-mongering reasons. Those in the locker room have been more than a little impressed by all the ways he’s affected the game over their last few contests.
“He’s been playing with a high motor, attacking the glass, getting a lot of rebounds, scoring, playing great defense. Whatever he has been doing the past couple of games, we’re going to need that for the rest of the year,” Davis said.
“He’s been playing at a high level,” Davis continued. “When you’re playing that hard and constantly attacking the glass and getting us extra possessions, we tend to look for you.”
Kuzma was asked about that praise, and was clearly unsure of how much it means at this time of year.
“That’s a tough question. Obviously, my teammates still believe in me, have confidence in me and I guess they want me here,” Kuzma said.
“He’s just had a little extra pop the last few games,” Vogel added. “His effort crashing the glass, coming back for boards on the defensive glass, keeping balls alive. He’s certainly playing with a great deal of energy, and that personifies who we want to be. We want to be a team that plays harder than our opponent every night, and he’s definitely done that the last few games.”
Vogel said he hasn’t seen any shift in Kuzma’s mentality since the trade rumors about him got louder, crediting him as a guy who played hard and affected the game in multiple ways when Vogel watched film of Kuzma while prepping for the season over the summer. He also confirmed he hasn’t had a conversation with Kuzma about all the trade chatter surrounding his name over the last several weeks, and that he doesn’t see a need to.
“It’s one of those things that’s par for the course for the NBA season. The whole NBA knows that the trade deadline is coming,” Vogel said. “Every team in the league, if they have an opportunity to make their team better, they’re going to do so. Teams like us that are winning, I like where we’re at, personally.
“But it’s a never say never business, and obviously if there are ways to improve our team then we’ll look at that. But I like where we’re at.”
And maybe the two of them don’t need to have a conversation. As Kuzma has said multiple times, he’s used to the whispers at this point. No, like seriously, he’s said that a lot, because he’s constantly getting asked about them.
“I’ve been in trade talks for three years, and every year that I’m here I’m going to be in them. That’s just how I see it. That’s how the media on this side of town is,” Kuzma said. “I’ve dealt with it.”
Kuzma describe the process as “tough” for the first two years of his career, but he’s seen enough to know that rumors are just part of the business of being on such a high-profile team at this point.
”You get drafted to a place and you think it’s going to be forever, and you see people come and go. I’ve had a lot of different teammates over the past three years,” Kuzma said. “You’ve got to really understand it’s a business. I remember my first year, (Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr.) got traded, and that kind of really hit me that it’s really a business.
“You never really know where you’re going to be. Obviously the first two years was kind of tough because I was new to it, but I’m used to it now. I understand the business, and that’s why I got to treat it like a business, too.”
As long as Kuzma is in a Lakers uniform, or anywhere else, he’s going to take the same approach to that business.
“I just play til exhausted, just play hard. Try to find other ways to get touches in the halfcourt, scoring opportunities,” Kuzma said. “Just go get it off the rim. Go get the ball that way.”
That description may not be the style of play most long-time observers associate with Kuzma, but he’s clearly trying to find ways to impact the game in a new role, with new teammates and after being in and out of the lineup with injuries, a process he says has been “tough” this season.
But during what will have been his last game as a Laker if he’s traded before Thursday, Kuzma displayed the qualities he’s striving for. Only the next 24 hours will tell if he’ll get to keep doing so in Los Angeles.
He’s not worried.
All quotes obtained firsthand. You can keep track of every trade rumor involving the Lakers here, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.