Wizards’ Kyle Kuzma on Lakers exit, chemistry in Washington, fashion and more


The rise of Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma into a 20-points-per-game scorer has had many trials and tribulations. He was projected as a second-round pick or undrafted free agent ahead of the 2017 NBA Draft. But after the Los Angeles Lakers selected him in the first round, 27th overall, Kuzma blossomed immediately, starting 37 games and averaging 16.1 points per contest as a rookie. He ultimately served as a key rotation player on the LeBron James– and Anthony Davis-led 2020 championship team.

Kuzma was part of the Lakers’ young, homegrown core that included Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle and Josh Hart. Now in Washington, the 27-year-old has grown as a co-star alongside Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porziņģis. On draft day 2021, the Lakers traded Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick to the Wizards for Russell Westbrook and a second-round pick, a blockbuster deal that continues to have a seismic impact for both teams and across the league. From the moment he was notified of the trade, Kuzma’s mindset shifted toward becoming the star-level player he always envisioned.

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

Now, Beal (22.9), Porziņģis (21.8) and Kuzma (20.6) are all averaging 20 points per game or more, making the Wizards the only team in the league with three players scoring 20 a night.

“Being in this situation helped out a lot. Here, I’m not playing behind LeBron and AD. Those guys are my position, my type of player, who I am, my style,” Kuzma said. “So coming here, I don’t have that anymore. It’s been great because me, Brad and KP don’t get in each other’s way. We all just flow out there. It’s been a pretty good jell for the first 20 games. We’re all averaging 20 a game without having any friction out there.”

The Wizards are 11-13 and have had up and down stretches this season, winning six of seven games in November, then losing six of seven, including Sunday’s home game against the Lakers. Washington received the long-term commitment of Beal last offseason when he re-signed on a five-year deal, but the Wizards have two key potential free agents this offseason in Porziņģis and Kuzma. Porziņģis has a player option next summer for $36 million while Kuzma has a $13 million player option. It makes Kuzma a fascinating talent for teams across the league to monitor ahead of the Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added. Overall, this surely creates a possible decision for the Wizards during the season of holding onto the potential free-agent-to-be or exploring what’s out there.

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

“We’ve had great respect for Kyle since he’s been in the league,” Sheppard told The Athletic. “He had a great rookie season, being in the Rookie of the Year conversation, and then life changed when LeBron came. So when the trade happened, it allowed Kyle an opportunity to join our program, have a bigger role, start for us, and he has been outstanding.

“Kyle has such a great personality and demeanor, and he has so much more room to grow in the future for us. We’re really excited for his future growth here.”

For his part, Kuzma is expected to approach in excess of $20 million to $25 million per year on a new deal next summer, rival executives believe. Kuzma, who is averaging 7.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists to go along with 20.6 points, is in the second season of the three-year, $40 million contract he signed with the Lakers in 2020.

“The sky’s the limit,” Kuzma said. “In my first deal, I definitely did the Lakers a little favor to have the hometown discount. I always appreciate (Lakers vice president of basketball operations) Rob Pelinka for the deal that he gave me, because it gave me security and it gave me a player option. I was one of the few players in NBA history without being a lottery pick to have a player option in an extension. Everything has worked out in my favor from signing that deal to my progression as a player to this summer too.”

Kuzma recently went one-on-one with The Athletic regarding his breakout season, departure from the Lakers, misconceptions and much more.

What was your workout regimen this past offseason compared to previous summers?

This summer was a lot of focus on strength. I really just game-planned my summer a lot. I wanted to keep the main thing, the main thing, and just try to get as strong as possible, lift as much as I can and get my reps up. The main thing was definitely my strength, being durable, attacking the basket, which I’ve done a lot better this year from gaining strength.

The past two summers, I’ve been getting really, really strong. Olympic-style lifting — snatches and cleans and stuff of that nature, just switching it up. Usually, typically I’ve lifted how 95 percent of the NBA lifts, so I changed it up and I’ve seen results.

You guys had an up-and-down season in 2021-22 in Washington. How did the trade from the Lakers to the Wizards make you view the situation and what you were accustomed to on the floor?

I think the last year in L.A., we had a group that I believe could have done a lot of things. If you look at our record prior to getting hurt — AD getting hurt, then Bron getting hurt — we were smashing people. We had a lot of momentum going into that Phoenix series, being up 2-1 and then AD getting hurt. It was a tough situation. I get the boot.

Being in Washington is really just helping me be myself. I had to show a shell of myself in L.A., playing with greatness, and rightfully so. That’s what you should do playing on a team with those type of players at my position. Whereas being in D.C. has allowed me to be myself and expand my game, which a lot of people probably didn’t think I was.

Kyle Kuzma and Bradley Beal (Photo: Brad Mills / USA Today)

I was around the championship team in the Orlando campus, it was a tight-knit group, so when you arrive to the Wizards, how was the chemistry?

That championship year taught me so many things about the game of basketball; just doing all the little things, how much chemistry and camaraderie means. If you look at our team last year, we were so up and down, because we didn’t like each other. It was a shit show. This year, yeah, we’re still working through some things, but we have a genuine group, an authentic group. We actually like each other. It’s a lot of parity in the NBA right now. When you look at the schedule, there’s a lot of teams that are two games above .500 or .500, especially in the East.

So we’ve got to stay the course.

Even when you’ve been doubted at points in your basketball career, how did you always have the confidence within yourself?

I’ve always had belief from the jump. I think over my years, I’ve had different roles, I’ve had different perceptions about me. Does he like basketball? Does he care about basketball? Does he like fashion? But for me, I just have this incredible self belief. I believe that no matter who I’m on the court with, I’m the best player. And that’s gotten me to this level. That’s gotten me to where I am. That’s why I’m having the season I’m having, so my irrational confidence has always been a key thing for me.

How do you handle those outside perceptions?

I’ve grown over the years to really not care what people think. Everybody always has something to say about me. I’ve realized that’s who I am. People are always going to say what they want to say. It’s a reference point. At the end of the day, if you’re in an organization that I play for, everyone knows how much of a competitor I am and how much I’m willing to sacrifice to win and how bad I want to win.

Speaking of your game outfits, how long does it take you to get the fit right?

The night before a trip, it takes me an hour to pack. It takes me an hour just to pick out my game fits because I’m trying out three or four different things. I’m like … ahhh, I don’t know about this. I take it serious. That’s who I am though. Even if it’s not a game, if I’m going to dinner, I might try on three outfits.

On the court, how do you, Brad and KP work on the chemistry component?

We’re approaching it every day. For us, we have to keep pushing it, and we have to exhaust each other. We have to make everyone else better. That’s our next step. When we can make other guys better on our team, it will make our job so much easier. We all want to win and we want to make those around us better.

I’m a champion. I’ve been at the highest level and played in some of the highest games in the championship. I’ve learned the game of basketball from probably the greatest player of all time, so I have a lot of knowledge in the way that I play, the way that I see the game. It’s all because of my past.



‘We’re not going to let go of the season’: Wizards face a defining stretch

(Top photo of Kyle Kuzma: Sam Navarro / USA Today)


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