LAS VEGAS — I only needed one question prepared for Kyle Kuzma before boarding my flight from JFK to McCarran International Airport: “Do you feel you have something to prove?”
After all, Kuzma wasn’t the first-round pick heralded as the greatest floor general of this basketball era. Lonzo Ball was. In fact, Kuzma was the late first-round pick the Lakers landed as part of the Brook Lopez trade. He was only a footnote on a Summer League team headlined by Ball and Brandon Ingram.
But I could tell Kuzma wasn’t your average late first-round pick in his Summer League debut alone.
While Ball posted a triple-double with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists, Kuzma silently stole the show, dropping 31 points on 5-of-10 shooting from downtown. When Lonzo put up 36 points, 11 rebounds, and five steals against the 76ers in front of LeBron James, Kuzma had a night of his own — 13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a steal.
And when Ball claimed Summer League MVP honors despite sitting Monday’s championship showdown against the Trail Blazers, it was Kuzma whose play solidified the franchise’s first-ever summertime crown. The Utah product put up 30 points on 6-of-10 shooting from downtown and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead his Lakers to a 110-98 victory. He won Summer League Finals MVP as a result.
That’s why after his July 12 matchup against the 76ers, I caught Kuzma just before he headed to the team bus. With all the hype surrounding Ball, I wondered, did he feel he had something to prove?
“Yeah for sure,” Kuzma told SB Nation. “I wouldn’t say prove that I belong on this team but that I belong on this level. I’ve been doubted my entire life. So for me to come out here, I wanted to prove that I was worth that 27th pick. I think I’ve showed that.”
After hitting the jackpot in the draft lottery to land Ball with the No. 2 overall pick, it appears Magic Johnson has struck gold once again. Kuzma can play both the three and four. He can guard virtually every position and has the length, speed, shooting stroke, and athleticism that fits perfectly with Los Angeles’ point guard of the future.
Kuzma and Ingram project to pair perfectly alongside each other as a couple of versatile defenders and electrifying offensive talents. It’s only Summer League, but if anything translates to the NBA, it’s athleticism and shooting range. And with Ball calling the shots at point guard, the Lakers look like the most exciting young team to watch heading into the 2017-18 season.
It may have been Ball who won Summer League MVP honors and endeared himself to fans nationwide with his selfless brand of leadership, but if anything’s become clear in Los Angeles it’s this: Kyle Kuzma doesn’t have to prove he belongs in this league anymore.
His play has done the proving for him.