As the Lakers unveiled the 2019-20 championship banner to their fans at Staples Center on Thursday, Kyle Kuzma couldn’t help but think about his time with the team.
Four years ago, when Kuzma was drafted with the No. 27 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, he was a relatively unknown talent in a young core that featured a pair of No. 2 overall picks in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, a former No. 7 overall pick Julius Randle and a pair of draft day steals in Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. That’s not to mention Josh Hart, who was taken three picks later.
Four years later, he’s the only one left of that group on the team and it’s not because he’s been infallible over the years. Like the Lakers, Kuzma struggled during this transitional period for him and the team, but he believes those struggles made Thursday’s ceremony sweeter.
“It meant a lot,” Kuzma said. “I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been here through some ugly times, some real ugly times. Whether it was the rookie year, second year, same crazy stuff, I’ve seen it all. So for me to be here from the jump, be a part of turning around the organization from the jump ... It just means a lot.
“Being just a kid from Flint, Michigan I never really thought about raising banners in Staples Center, so it’s real surreal to me. I’m just really grateful that I’m able to play the game that I love and contribute at a high level to winning. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a banner. It’s up there forever, it’s never going to go down, and I’ll always remember this moment.”
During the lowest point of his young career, Kuzma was heavily scrutinized for his off-the-court interests — most notably his love for fashion — due to an uninformed belief that he cared more about those things than he did about getting better. While Kuzma hasn’t escaped those critiques entirely, he’s comfortable knowing that his passion for the game speaks for itself when he’s playing.
“I just love the game of basketball, plain and simple,” Kuzma said. “My freshman year in college, I didn’t play at all, really. I played 5-7 minutes a game on a Sweet 16 team. Could’ve transferred, but for me I just stuck with it and just continued to build and build. Eventually got to the NBA and had a lot of adversity since being here. Role changes and and obviously big dogs coming here and my role diminishing more and more, but I’m a strong person.
“I’ve been through a lot, but nothing really is too big for me. I love the grind. I think there’s this misconception about me as a person, people think don’t think I love basketball (because of) how I dress, how I dye my hair and everything else. But if you really watch basketball and you understand where I was from my rookie year to where I am now, I’ve really turned myself into a complete, all-around player. That’s from the grind, that’s from studying and from wanting to be as great as I can be.”
Kuzma hasn’t been the third star to LeBron James and Anthony Davis that so many people, including himself, thought he’d be, but he feels that simply being around James and Davis has helped him become a star in his role.
“I wouldn’t change my journey for anything,” Kuzma said. “I think it’s been very valuable to me. It’s been very valuable to take a seat and watch Bron and AD play, that’s helped me tremendously in my growth and I’m looking to continue getting better and better. That’s what it’s all about.”
Whether Kuzma will ever blossom into that third star is unknown, but one thing’s for certain: he’s going to have a long career in the NBA if he continues to play winning basketball. Hopefully, a majority of those years are spent in Los Angeles.
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