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Kyle Kuzma can make Puma cool just by being himself

The Lakers forward is trying to become the new face of Puma.

Kyle Kuzma on the ESPY’s red carpet wearing all denim.
Kyle Kuzma is trying to make Puma cool again.

Kyle Kuzma graded out as the 154th best player in the NBA last season by ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, but you would never know it from all the attention he receives. Kuzma has already achieved cult hero status on the brink of his third season with the Lakers, a designation that has as much to do with how he acts off the court as it does how he plays on it.

Kuzma the player is an unrepentant gunner who can score from all three levels and get hot in a hurry. Kuzma is productive (a career scoring average of 17.3 points per game) and accomplished (he made USA Basketball’s World Cup roster this summer), but his game also leaves the impression of having more style than substance. His defensive reputation is poor and he hasn’t yet shown an ability to have a sizable impact on winning.

For whatever holes he has in his game, there’s one thing about Kuzma almost everyone agrees on: he’s cool. That’s why Puma signed him to an endorsement deal this week reportedly worth about $15 million over the next five years.

No, it’s not LeBron James’ high school graduation present from Nike, but it’s still a significant deal. Kuzma has earned only $3.1 million through his first two pro seasons and he’ll have only made $8.5 million when he enters free agency in the summer of 2021. That means Kuzma has already made more guaranteed money as a glorified influencer than he has as a basketball player.

No, Puma isn’t strictly for people who play indoor soccer anymore. Yes, Kuzma’s pitchman appeal goes beyond his status as the third or fourth best player on the Lakers. This is everything you need to know about PUZMA.

Puma has spent the last year signing young NBA players

Most people were confused when rumors spread that Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III, the first two picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, were considering signing a shoe deal with Puma. Puma had been out of the basketball shoes game since the 70s, and Bagley in particular had deep ties to Nike from his high school days.

Puma inked both. Then they signed DeMarcus Cousins, Terry Rozier, Kevin Knox, R.J. Barrett, Michael Porter Jr., Skylar Diggins-Smith, and more.

There are two common threads here: Puma is loading up on recent draft picks, and targeting players with big personalities. Cousins’ perceived bad attitude is more of an asset than a detriment. Rozier has often been inefficient but he’s always authentic.

Kuzma fits the mark perfectly in both regards.

Explaining Kuzma’s cool

Kuzma is something like the Millennial Dream personified. He gets to play with LeBron James on the most glamorous team in the most glamorous market in the NBA. He’s active and funny on social media (there are entire articles dedicated to Kuz’s “greatest social media roasts”). He parties on boats with Kendall Jenner. He has objectively correct music takes. He poses for Instagram pictures like this:

Kuzma’s game fits his persona, too. When he’s on, this is a 6’9 forward who hits tough shots, strokes threes, and can finish above the rim. He scored 41 points in three quarters in a game last season.

Kuzma’s skill set has real deficiencies — he averaged only one stock (steal + block) per-36 minutes last year and his jumper tailed off to just 30 percent from deep — but he’s still fun to watch when he gets it going.

Is a Kyle Kuzma Puma signature shoe coming?

There is no word on that yet. To this point, Puma has only released signature series basketball shoes from legends like Clyde Frazier and Ralph Sampson. We do know Kuzma showed up to Lakers media day rocking these just before his Puma deal became official:

If Kuzma likes them, they must be cool.