Kyle Kuzma Talks Lakers Role, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, More in B/R Exclusive

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 8, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) controls the ball during an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks Tuesday, May 11, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Kyle Kuzma is ready to take the next step—both on and off the court.

On the court, he's determined to expand his role and show he can be the focal point of an offense. Off of it, he's ready to give the public a glimpse of his personal life with his Hanging With Kuz video series, set to debut Thursday exclusively on LG OLED televisions.

Hanging With Kuz is a multipart series that follows Kuzma on a tour of his new home and sees him kicking it with actor Travis "Taco" Bennett, his longtime friend. Kuzma and Bennett say their friendship shines through the screen, bringing a lightheartedness and free-flowing feel to the show.

"The series brings a light to my life and Taco's life as well, with an emphasis on how friendship plays a part of living good," Kuzma tells Bleacher Report. 

"It was funny. Just him being my homie made it easier," Bennett adds. "A lot of time we were laughing just to laugh because we're idiots. Working with LG was sick because I'm an idiot...like we've been homies. We've been eatin' and s--t and doin' s--t, and this was a way to cheat. We got to work with each other, and that was hella fun. A lot of time you get to work with people, and a majority of time it's someone you don't really know that well. But to get to work with your homies and do s--t that was tight.

"Our chemistry is just our chemistry in general, so just to be playful in front of the camera isn't hard to do. So I think, bouncing off that, it was just really easy to make jokes and feel comfortable."

The lightheartedness was a welcome change for Kuzma, fresh off a disappointing 2020-21 campaign that saw the Lakers go from hoisting championship gold to being eliminated in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Kuzma, who averaged 12.9 points and 6.1 rebounds, says inconsistent player roles and injuries were among several factors in the Lakers' disappointing playoff run.

"A little bit of everything. Injuries throughout the season, changing roles, certain guys in the lineup, certain guys not in the lineup. The NBA season is already mentally draining, and when you have a lot of that, it just adds to it," Kuzma said.

Perhaps the most draining factor—from a mental and physical standpoint—was the Lakers' lack of rest between seasons. The Lakers were given only a 73-day offseason between the 2020 NBA Finals and the start of a condensed 72-game regular season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis both missed prolonged stretches because of injuries, and the 2021 playoffs have been marred by stars forced to miss time—leading to criticism of the league by James. 

Kuzma agrees with James' assessment that the shortened offseason led to the barrage of injuries. 

"If you look at all the teams that were in the bubble and played long, they had a lot of injuries," Kuzma said. "Look at Denver with Murray, even looking at the Heat this year how many injuries they had, along with us, too. Having AD out, Bron out, [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] out a few games, [Alex] Caruso out a few games, a lot of people missed games, and I contribute that to the bubble.

"If you think about the injuries from a player's perspective, it wasn't enough time for players to get their bodies ready. But at the same time, you gotta go out and compete and take care of your body. I'm definitely not complaining; they pay us a lot of money to go out there and compete."

LeBron James @KingJames

They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season. I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE

The hobbled Lakers' season ended with a first-round loss to the Phoenix Suns, with Davis suffering a critical groin injury that cost him Game 5 and most of Games 4 and 6. The Lakers held a 2-1 series lead when Davis went down in Game 4, and Phoenix went on to earn their first Finals berth since 1993. While some fans could surmise this means the Lakers would be in the Finals now if it weren't for injuries, Kuzma saw championship-caliber chemistry in the Suns. 

"I saw them as a potential Finals team just off their chemistry," Kuzma said. "Last year with us, we had unbelievable chemistry and everybody kind of jelled and knew their role and had fun doing it, had fun playing with each other. I noticed playing them, that same type of feel. Everybody was communicating, talking, having fun, smiling with each other. Usually, when you have a team connected like that, you win big."

This season's Lakers did not play with the same level of joy. The team made several offseason tweaks to the roster, with veterans Rajon Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard among the names that were sent packing in favor of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews and Andre Drummond. While the latter group arguably brings more from an individual talent standpoint, the on-court chemistry didn't reach the same level.

Roster upheaval and injuries led to a healthy Kuzma being shape-shifted into several different roles this season—a point of frustration for the 25-year-old. Kuzma is looking for more consistency in his role next season. 

"My biggest thing is I just want to play within a consistent role," Kuzma said. "If I have that ability, I'll be able to showcase what I can really do. There were parts of this year—and even anywhere else in my career—when I'm in a consistent space, I'm out there handling the ball, making teammates better, scoring, shooting, defending, rebounding. I think if I'm in that space, I'll be good."

If you're sensing irritation, it would be hard to blame him. Kuzma entered the league in 2017 as a late first-round pick out of Utah and instantly blossomed, finishing behind only future All-NBAers Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum in Rookie of the Year voting. A year later, he was the Lakers' second-leading scorer in James' first season with the franchise; he was the only member of their young core not sent to New Orleans as part of the Anthony Davis trade.

Davis' arrival meant a seismic role adjustment for Kuzma, who became a sixth man during their championship campaign and saw his numbers dip across the board. Injuries to James and Davis had Kuzma shuffling in and out of the starting lineup this season, with 32 starts against 36 games coming as a reserve.

Kuzma's numbers were stronger across the board when he started in his natural 4 position, and he still sees himself as a player capable of averaging 25 points per game and reaching All-Star heights. 

"I definitely can. I definitely believe that, too. I don't really care what nobody thinks or says. I know myself, and I know my ability. It's hard to be consistent in an inconsistent role. I'm excited for a more consistent space next year," Kuzma said. 

"I've done a great job every offseason of trying to build something and add something to my game. I've turned myself into a great defender. My rookie year, I was a stop sign on defense. I didn't really stop anybody. Now, whether it's elite wings, 4 men, even point guards and shooting guards, I have the ability to guard four positions now and really affect the game on that end of the court."

The numbers back up Kuzma's assessment. A below-average defender who was regularly thrown on an opponent's worst offensive player early in his career, Kuzma became one of the Lakers' most versatile defenders last season. Opponents shot 2.6 percent worse than their average when Kuzma was the primary defender, and he uses his length well on closeouts, holding opponents to just 29.7 percent shooting from three. 

Kuzma says he's now intent on fixing the other major flaw some see in his game: ball-handling. 

After taking a couple weeks of rest following the Lakers' elimination, Kuzma hit the gym to focus on fine-tuning his handle in hopes of gaining more offensive responsibility. He desires the trust to lead offensive sets and help make teammates better rather than stay stationary on offense. In 2020-21, a career-high 58.2 percent of Kuzma's shots came with zero dribbles; only 20.6 percent of his shots were pull-ups. 

"I'm working on my ball-handling so I'm able to get where I want on the court more efficiently and not necessarily be an in-the-corner type of shooter," Kuzma said. 

Kuzma sounds like a player ready to blossom into an on-court leader, someone who has spent his formative years learning from greats and wants a chance to apply what he's learned for himself. He mentions James and the late Kobe Bryant among his favorite players and speaks of their infectious enthusiasm when asked to compare the all-time greats. 

"They're obviously two different people, and it's really hard to compare both of them. They're just so vastly different, but the one thing in common is they're just both winners in life," Kuzma said. "They attack everything with a certain type of enthusiasm, whether it's basketball, whether it's business, whether it's life, whether it's working out, their approach to get to the gym or their approach to get to their bodies or lifting is just a winner's enthusiasm. They're just enthusiastically optimistic about everything. Their confidence levels are very, very high and very, very rare."

Hanging With Kuz is available exclusively on LG OLED televisions. It's the second release of LG's "Only on OLED" series.