Just one day after a Talen Horton-Tucker game winner saved the Los Angeles Lakers in overtime, they went to the death again against the Houston Rockets. This time, it was Kyle Kuzma with an isolation drive to the rim, hitting the go-ahead floater with fewer than seven seconds left to save the team’s slight chances of escaping the risky play-in tournament.
Big bucket Kuz. 👏 pic.twitter.com/4pFMl54Hw3
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) May 13, 2021
Kuzma, an oft-forgotten member of a loaded, albeit injury-riddled, Lakers team put an exclamation point on what has been a remarkable season for him. The fourth-year player has faced a lot of criticism both on and off the court but over the last two seasons, and especially in this one, he has continued to show massive improvements: making strides defensively, hitting 3-pointers while spacing the floor around the Lakers’ superstars, and even showing some playmaking chops.
On the night when the Lakers raised their 17th NBA championship banner in front of their small home crowd, Kuzma was able to reflect on his role in the organization from a rookie on a bad team to a valuable contributor of a championship squad. The usually introspective Kuzma spoke to the media about what it meant to see that banner raised just ahead of the Lakers’ quest to win back-to-back titles:
“It meant a lot. I’ve been here the longest,” Kuzma, the longest tenured Laker by a full year, said. “I’ve been here through some ugly times, some real ugly times. Whether it was the rookie year, the second year, some crazy stuff. I’ve seen it all. So for me to be here from the jump, be a part of turning the organization around from the jump…it just means a lot. Being just a kid from Flint, Michigan, I never really thought about raising banners in Staples Center, so it’s real surreal to me. I’m just really grateful that I’m able to play the game I love and contribute at a high level to winning. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a banner. It’s up there forever, it’s never going to go down, and I’ll always remember this moment.”
Kuzma continued by reflecting on his journey to get to this point:
“I just love the game of basketball plain and simple. […] got to the NBA and had a lot of adversity since being here. Role changes and obviously big dogs coming here and my role diminishing more and more, but I’m a strong person. I’ve been through a lot, but nothing is really too big for me. I love the grind. I think there’s a misconception about me as a person. People think I don’t love basketball [because of] how I dress, how I dye my hair, and everything else. But if you really watch basketball and you understand where I was from my rookie year to where I am right now, I’ve really turned myself into a complete, all-around player. That’s from the grind. That’s from studying and from wanting to be as great as I can be. So I wouldn’t change my journey for anything. I think it’s been very valuable to me. It’s been very valuable to take a seat and watch LeBron and AD play. That’s helped me tremendously in my growth and I’m looking to continue getting better and better. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Lakers rewarded Kuzma with a contact extension in the offseason, showing faith in his ability to get better after he flashed those signs in the second half of last year. He’s repaid that faith ten-fold, already becoming one of the better value deals in the league by turning into a nearly irreplaceable part of the rotation.
Sports, particularly in the case of a winning franchise like the Lakers, often becomes hyper-focused on the transactions. Athletes become assets and fans are always looking at the next best opportunity to improve the team by shedding the loose skin on a roster. But there’s something to be said about the sentimentalism and romanticism of sports too and no one exemplifies that more for the Lakers than Kyle Kuzma.
In Kuz, we see a portal to the struggle years of being a perennial lottery team. But we also see one to an exciting and enjoyable present and a promising future. We see a mirror reflecting back the grind through personal and professional struggles and a young person maturing and perfecting his passion. More than anything, we see a winning mentality, a desire to be the best we can be while allowing ourselves the space to fail and get up again.
Kyle Kuzma’s game winner over the Rockets in a regular season game with both teams nursing major injuries is not going to be the most memorable part of his career. When it’s all said and done, he will be remembered for the “love of the grind” and the candid statements showing his growth and maturation in front of the public eye.