In 2017, the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Kyle Kuzma with the No. 27 pick in the NBA draft — a pick they acquired in the controversial trade that saw former No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov go to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez, whose expiring contract allowed them to have maximum cap flexibility the following summer.
Kuzma hit the ground running in his rookie season, but his team didn’t, as evidenced by the 35 games they won during the 2017-18 season. The following season, Kuzma took another leap playing alongside LeBron James, but the Lakers missed the playoffs once again with an underwhelming 37-45 record.
This season, with both James and Anthony Davis on the roster, Kuzma’s role with the Lakers shrank — as did his scoring numbers — but his sacrifice allowed him to play in the postseason for the first time in his career, and now he’s just days away from appearing in his first NBA Finals.
Kuzma’s isn’t the only player on the roster that will be playing in the NBA Finals for the first time next month — far from it — but being with the Lakers through their highs and lows over the last three years has made everything that’s happened this season a little sweeter for him.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Kuzma said. “It’s a feeling that you can’t take for granted because you never know when you’re going to get back to this. Especially for me, I’m just embracing it all. Me and Alex we’ve been here through the dark days of Lakers Nation: losing seasons and rebuilds.
“To be here now in the Finals, it’s a testament to a lot of hard work from obviously us as players, and the front office for making the right decisions. I’m just super happy to be here.”
There’s also the added layer of emotions that come with making a Finals appearance in a Lakers uniform.
Some of the greatest players in NBA history have donned the purple and gold in the Finals, and whether or not Kuzma makes as big of an impact as some of the great Lakers players like Happy Hairston, Michael Cooper, Robert Horry or Metta World Peace, he’ll be part of the team’s rich history, and he’s made it clear that’s not lost on him.
“It means a lot,” Kuzma said. “This is the greatest franchise of them all. Especially when you talk about basketball ... so many Finals appearances. To be part of that, it’s history and it’s crazy. Obviously, the Lakers haven’t been to the Finals in a decade and I’m just happy that I’m here.”
What’s admirable about Kuzma is that he took as much pride in playing for the Lakers when they were losing games as he does now that they’re winning. You can say what you want about Kuzma, but the respect he has for the team and its history has never seemed inauthentic — he’s always known what it means to wear the purple and gold.
Has Kuzma been everything Lakers fans thought he’d be following his promising rookie campaign? No, but his attitude and approach to everything he’s done since then has made him easy to root for. Let’s hope that his dedication pays off with a championship.