Kuzmania: Luke Walton joins chorus of NBA heads singing Kyle Kuzma's praise

Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma beats Nuggets guard Malik Beasley off the dribble. (AP)
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma beats Nuggets guard Malik Beasley off the dribble. (AP)

NBA preseason lets vets break a little sweat before stepping aside so younger players can present what they’ve been working on all summer. On occasion, a rookie seizes the limelight and makes everyone pay attention. Lonzo Ball may be the Los Angeles Lakers’ marquee draft pick, but fellow first-rounder and explosive scoring forward Kyle Kuzma has been a scene-stealer for the entire offseason.

What started out as a summer-league gym revelation has carried over into preseason arenas against higher-caliber opposition. During his junior year at Utah, Kuzma shot better than 50 percent from the field, but was a 32 percent shooter from the collegiate 3-point arc and a below average free-throw shooter. Somehow he’s improved his shooting while remaining inconsistent from the charity stripe.

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Kuzma captured MVP honors in the Las Vegas summer league title game after averaging 21.9 points (on 51.4 percent shooting), 6.4 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game for the tournament. And he’s remained consistent through a pair of preseason games, scoring 21 points per game (on incredibly efficient 66 percent shooting) in just 27.7 minutes a night. Pretty soon, Kuzmania will achieve transcendence.

After Kuzma carved up the Denver Nuggets for 23 points on 17 shots on Wednesday, Lakers coach Luke Walton joined the cult and beamed about Kuzma’s mentality to Lakers Nation reporter Serena Winters.

It’s worth reiterating this is still the preseason. This is the same ecosystem where we witnessed a slew of rookie flashes in the pan, from Jimmer Fredette in 2011 to Al Thornton in 2007 and Marcus Williams the year prior. None of them ever approached those peaks in the regular season. One thing each of those individuals had in common when they stormed out of the gates was being age 22 or older, thus more physically ready for the NBA ranks. On the downside, they’d already tapped their ceilings.

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Yet, NBA general managers are already kicking themselves for letting Kuzma fall to the 27th pick, voting him the 2017 NBA draft’s second-biggest steal behind Dallas Mavericks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. in the annual GM survey. Hindsight is 20/20 now that Kuzma is using his 6-foot-9 frame to post up, hammer over bewlidered defenders at the rim and hit 47 percent of his treys on nearly six attempts a night.

Naturally, Rookie of the Year talk has picked up, even though Kuzma’s volume of scoring opportunities will inevitably decrease once Brook Lopez, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle begin eating up many of the frontcourt minutes in the regular season.

It would be easy to label Kuzma’s preseason outburst as the product of a hot streak, but he’s had three months for his scoring touch to cool down between summer league and preseason. Anybody who’s seen his diverse scoring arsenal, versatile skills and crafty footwork knows Walton won’t be the last NBA figure using glowing superlatives to describe the Lakers’ rook.