In Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers Found a Gem Late in the First Round

Kyle Kuzma had 38 points and no turnovers in 40 minutes as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Houston Rockets on Wednesday.

The N.B.A. invites a curated group of around 20 players to sit in the greenroom at the draft each year. The process cuts down on the number of players who have to sit awkwardly in front of the news media hoping to be picked, but it also leads to roughly a third of the first-round picks not being front and center when Commissioner Adam Silver calls their names.

That worked out just fine for Kyle Kuzma, the Lakers’ breakout rookie, who in June ditched the draft proceedings entirely in favor of a private party, allowing him to celebrate being the 27th pick without having to sit quietly for a few hours on the Barclays Center floor in Brooklyn.

Typically, the last five picks of the first round, which, barring trades, are given to the teams with the five best records, are the realm of projects. If your name is called at that point, you’re generally a European with an unclear contract situation or an American with some sort of discernible flaw to your game. You may be a bit too short, a bit too one-dimensional, or have a jump shot that is just a bit too ugly.

Chances are slim that you’re a 6-foot-9 American capable of averaging more than 17 points a game as a rookie while outshining several teammates who were top-five picks.

But Kuzma, whose draft rights were included in the trade that sent D’Angelo Russell to the Nets, is used to surprising people, and he has hit the ground running in the N.B.A., often eclipsing even Lonzo Ball, his much-hyped teammate, who was taken 25 spots earlier than he was in the same draft.

Kuzma’s talent has never been on better display than it was on Wednesday night, when he got his 11th start and ended up scoring 38 points in the Lakers’ 122-116 win over the Houston Rockets. It was just the third time since the 1983-84 season that a rookie had scored that many points without a single turnover; Michael Jordan and Tom Gugliotta were the other players to do it.

Kuzma battled for 40 minutes, helping to offset a 51-point effort by James Harden, as the Lakers ended Houston’s 14-game winning streak.

Asked after the game if it surprised him to score so many points in a game, Kuzma simply shrugged.

“Why not?” he said. “I scored 30s in the summer league so. …”

Kuzma trailed off, perhaps thinking he had gone a bit too far, but Kobe Bryant, who has taken on something of a mentoring role for the young Lakers, did not seem to think Kuzma had anything to apologize for. He quote-tweeted a reporter’s post on Kuzma’s comments and added an emoji of a flexing muscle.

Bryant was recently accused of putting too much pressure on the young Lakers, with ESPN and other outlets quoting him as saying, Ball “needs to get better now.”

But the context of that quotation was lost. Bryant was actually preaching patience for fans and the news media, while urging Ball, Kuzma and Julius Randle, by name, to show some urgency in their own development. He said their ideal mind-set should be similar to the way he and Shaquille O’Neal played in their early days with the Lakers.

“We never thought we were going to win four years from now,” he said. “We thought — we really thought: This is our year, we’re going to get this done.”

Ball has had ups and downs as a rookie, but he could go to the Hall of Fame one day and still not have lived up to the expectations his father and Magic Johnson have set for him. Kuzma had to build his own hype machine when he left Utah after his junior year, and has been a consistent positive for the Lakers, scoring 20 or more points in 11 of his 28 games while producing eight double-doubles.

His steady play at power forward has led to averages of 17.4 points and 6.6 rebounds a game to go with a .504 shooting percentage and just 1.8 turnovers a game. He was named the Western Conference’s rookie of the month in November.

Kuzma still has work to do to become a complete player. The knock on him coming out of Utah was that he did not show consistent effort on defense, and that has shown up in the N.B.A. with a defensive rating of 109, the second worst among the Lakers’ rotation players. And while he has shot the ball incredibly well — he is a 40.5 percent shooter from 3-point range on 4.7 attempts a game — his shot selection has been questioned by his coaches, and even some of his teammates.

But having proved that he can score at the pro level, Kuzma finds himself just behind Jayson Tatum of the Celtics and Ben Simmons of the 76ers in the battle for the Rookie of the Year Award, and he has the potential to join the small group of players drafted at the end of the first round who blossom into full-fledged stars. And he didn’t need to shake hands on the Barclays Center stage to get there.

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