Thursday, September 28

Kyle Kuzma expands role with Wizards, but maintains love for Lakers – Orange County Register

LOS ANGELES — Surely Kyle Kuzma, a four-year veteran of the Lakers who dates a model and hobnobs with celebrities and high-fashion types, would be headed to some swanky private dining room with a high-priced wine cellar for his first meal back in Los Angeles.


“Man, I went straight to In-N-Out – that was the first thing I did,” Kuzma told the Southern California News Group, wrapping ice around his legs after a Friday morning shootaround at UCLA. “I just got a double-double. Got a nice little double-double. Got some pink lemonade. That’s usually the go-to.”

Kuzma has always been a bit of a dichotomy – someone who quickly embraced the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, but tried, in his own way, to stay true to his blue-collar Michigan roots through his charity work (and the occasional cheeseburger).

The simplest label for Kuzma might just be Californian: When he returned to LA for the first time this season for games against the Clippers and Lakers, he was ecstatic to sleep in his own bed in the home he still owns in Palos Verdes.

“Obviously this is home for me,” he said. “I have my offseasons here, live here as a resident. So it always feels good for sure.”

There’s nostalgia in Lakerland for Kuzma and Wizards teammate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who were shipped out with a draft pick and Montrezl Harrell (since traded to Charlotte) in exchange for Russell Westbrook last summer. Neither team is where it wants to be at this point in the season: Washington was sitting at 11th place when the Wizards came to Los Angeles for the first matchup the former Lakers have against their old team.

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Kuzma in particular has been on a tear: He came into Friday’s game averaging 25.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his previous six games, taking a bigger offensive load with All-Star guard Bradley Beal sidelined. Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. said he’s had “wide-eyed surprise” to how versatile Kuzma has been for his team this season, as a scorer, rebounder, playmaker and defender.

Kuzma teased on social media that he thought he would come into his fifth season “like a pitbull with no leash,” and he’s satisfied that he’s gotten a chance to show it in Washington.

“I’m able to do a lot over here,” he said. “A lot of people respect me, respect my basketball acumen. I’m able to do a lot of different things and showcase what I can do on the floor, whether that’s being a screener, being a pick-and-roll ballhandler, coming off pindowns, iso-ing, being a defensive leader. So kind of just expanding.”

Before his on-court warm-up, Kuzma came over to hug the Lakers television crew and a number of staffers. For a long time, the front office regarded him as a feel-good example of home-grown talent – ​​a late first-round draft pick they hit who was able to be a key cog on a championship team. Among the free agent-dominated history of the franchise, Kuzma’s underdog story gave the Lakers some scrappy verve.

When the Lakers got knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Phoenix Suns last spring, there was speculation that the team would run back the roster one more time. Kuzma didn’t buy it.

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“You knew at the end of the day, there was going to be some change,” he said. “That was like the elephant in the room after we lost for the whole team, you know, losing in the first round. But at the same time, it just was what it was. This is a business, and player transactions, cash considerations – they happen every day.”

The Lakers, however, probably miss Kuzma most in his old role as a second-unit scorer, a stretch forward and, after several seasons of work, a reliable defender. Coach Frank Vogel smiled wistfully at the memories of Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope, his “dirty work guys” who worked in less glamorous roles, allowing LeBron James and Anthony Davis to thrive as stars.

When they were traded, Vogel said he messaged both players to tell them what they meant.

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