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Basketball Break: Kuzma’s Revenge

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I know, I know. It’s football season. It’s homecoming. The Utes are about to get into the red meat of their schedule and all focus should be around whether we can stop Bryce Love this week, harass Sam Darnold next week, and eventually find enough offense to win a Pac-12 championship. But hold up for just one second- something is happening in Los Angeles right now that deserves our attention. It’s the Kyle Kuzma Phenomenon, and it’s turning him into a NBA preseason cult hero.

Only since the hiring of Larry Krystkowiak has the University of Utah began to reassert itself as a “basketball school.” Not since the days of Rick Majerus, Keith Van Horn, and Andre Miller have the Utes seen such a resurgence on the hardwood (Andrew Bogut gave us some light, but was more of a blip on the Runnin’ Ute radar.) Over the past three seasons, we’ve produced Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, and Kyle Kuzma as first-round NBA Draft picks. While the first two have taken their talents to The Wall, they still seem to be finding their way in the league. But something seems different with Kuzma- he looks NBA ready.

What did we know about Kyle while he was at the U? Two seasons ago, alongside Wright and Poeltl, he served as the “third fiddle,” averaging about 11 points and 6 rebounds per game. He showed his ability to both handle and pass the rock, a rare quality for a guy that’s 6’9”. After the departure of the aforementioned Toronto Raptors, things changed a bit. Kuzma was the clear “go-to” guy on the team, and while he averaged 16.3 points and 9.4 boards a game, his three point shooting ability took a dive. Additionally, the team took what seemed like a large step back. The Utes lost to every single ranked team it played (save 25th ranked USC), and failed to make it to the big dance. Kuzma’s draft prospects seemed to dim. Some analysts pegged him for the late second round, while others saw him more as an undrafted guy.

After losing in the first round of the NIT to Boise State (ugh), Kuzma declared for the NBA draft but did not hire an agent, preserving his ability to use his final year of NCAA eligibility. By May 2017, he changed his mind, hiring an agent from Priority Sports, an LA-based sports and entertainment agency. This is where everything started to turn for Kuzma. On May 12, he put on a show at the NBA combine in Chicago, shooting 4/5 from 3 point land, and 8 of 10 overall. After his 20 point outing, Kuzma’s draft stock was on a steep rise.

Fast forward to June 22, 2017. With the second pick in the draft, the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball. Twitter exploded, Lavar Ball sold shoes, and the city of Los Angeles celebrated like they had already won their seventeenth NBA championship. Nothing mattered anymore, the Lakeshow was back! But then, ever-so-quietly, the Lakers used a late first round pick to snatch up our man. My phone started buzzing immediately. My Laker-fan friends (I know, it’s a shame that I have any) wanted to know more- “who is he? Can he shoot? Defend?” Based on his last season at the U, I honestly didn’t know how to answer. “He’s ok, I think?”

Then came summer league, hyped as if it were the playoffs. Kuzma looked more than comfortable living in the Ball shadow, and finished summer league averaging 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and shooting nearly 50% from deep. In the summer league championship, Kuzma scored 30 points, and was named the Championship Game MVP, all while Lonzo sat on the bench in street clothes.

In the preseason, it’s been all Kuzma, finishing with baseline dunks and shooting more than efficiently from everywhere on the court. Thus far he’s averaging 21.0 points per game while shooting 66% from the floor. He’s become known fondly as “Kuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuz” by the Laker faithful, and his legend continues to grow. Writers from ESPN to the Ringer have taken notice, and Kuzma seems to have secured his place in Laker (preseason) history. So here’s the question- is this for real or is this just a Linsanity-esque moment in time? Only time will tell, but for now, all we can say is “Congrats, Kuz. Keep proving them wrong.”