LOS ANGELES — When basketball trainer Clint Parks first met Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, he was almost floored at just how good Kuzma already looked.
At the time, Kuzma was in his redshirt season at Utah University, and had sought out Parks because of his previous work with NBA players Kawhi Leonard and Tony Snell. From the first workout the two had together, only one thought came to Parks’ mind.
“Wow,” Parks thought. “This kid has something.”
Kuzma, picked 27th in last summer’s NBA Draft, has exceeded expectations so far in his rookie season. He’s averaging 15.7 points (third among all rookies) in 29.5 minutes per game. He exploded for a 38-point game in a win against the Houston Rockets in December, which ranks second among all rookies for a single game this season.
Kuzma was rewarded with his selection to the Rising Stars game on Friday night as part of NBA All-Star Weekend. He finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, scoring 11 of those in the the fourth quarter.
But the numbers don’t matter as much to Kuzma as the significance of being selected as one of the top young players in the NBA. Before Friday’s game, Kuzma said playing in the Rising Stars game means a great deal to him.
“You know, I wasn’t supposed to be here,” Kuzma said. “I was the 27th pick. Not too many people thought I was going to play the way I am. You know, it’s just a testament to having confidence and work ethic and believing in yourself. Just keeping the marathon going.”
Kuzma’s work this season has permeated throughout every aspect of his game. Lakers coach Luke Walton said recently that he is one of the hardest workers on the team.
Despite a demanding NBA schedule, Kuzma has tried to improve on various parts of his game as the year has gone on, particularly his shooting stroke, which was inconsistent at Utah but has improved significantly throughout the season.
Kuzma is shooting 45% from the field, and 35.8% from the 3-point line. He went through a stretch in December where he scored at least 20 points seven different times, including that 38-point outburst. He also scored 31 points on Christmas Day against the Minnesota Timberwolves, which was the most points scored on that day since LeBron James in 2003.
One of the keys to Kuzma’s shooting has been a change in his shot mechanics, he said in late December.
“I think it’s made my percentages jump a lot,” Kuzma said. “At the beginning of the year, I kinda reverted back to a little bit in a college sense to where I wasn’t really disciplined on shooting the same way every time and just making a conscious effort of it.”
Walton said Kuzma improving his shot so quickly after the season started was the result of how much work he puts in.
“When he first got here and we drafted him, he had a good shot but it was inconsistent where his release point was,” Walton said. “He just started working on it – every single day, like all day. There’s still some things he’s working on with his shot. But he changed it quickly as far as making the shot look similar each time he shot it. With him, it’s hard work. He puts it in. He loves being in the gym, he loves working. I think he’s developed it quicker than most people would have thought. But it comes down to the simple idea of work hard and you’ll succeed.”
Kuzma’s shooting has dipped of late, but he has made up for it with improved effort on defense, something he is also focusing on during the season despite the demanding schedule. His effort level led him to compare himself to a Lakers legend.
In an interview he gave to “Rolling Stone” last month, Kuzma said he and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant both have the same approach to the game of basketball. When asked what he meant by the comment, he simply said Bryant worked hard, and so does he.
Walton, however, thinks that comparison is too early to make.
“Kobe Bryant was the hardest-working player I’ve ever seen -committed his life to the craft, from 4 a.m. until the moment he went to sleep most nights, waking up to set an ice bath or ice bag throughout the night was how he approached it,” Walton said. “(Kuzma is) young in his career, but he definitely has confidence and a good work ethic to start down that path.”
Parks said he felt Kuzma could be an NBA player from the first day he met him, and his work ethic mirrors that of Leonard and Snell. When Kuzma scored his 38 against the Rockets, Parks wasn’t surprised one iota, and said he “knew it was coming.”
“He’s always had talent, he’s always had self-belief,” Parks said of Kuzma. “It’s a mystery to a lot of people why he’s playing (well), but for people that have been around him and people that know him and know his character, this isn’t really a surprise to us because we know how hard he worked for this. Pretty much he’s just doing what we expected him to do and what he’s expected of himself.”
Kuzma’s career is still in its early stages. But by the time it ends, he just wants to be known as one of the best players in the game.
“That’s what drives me,” Kuzma said. “I just wanna be a great player. I work really hard at my game. That’s what I’m driven for. “