How Kyle Kuzma's old-school moves made him the perfect fit for a new Lakers era

From ESPN - November 15, 2017

Bill Bertka has seen just about everything in his 90 years: the beginnings of the Showtime era Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, Kobe Bryant's legendary pre-draft workouts that convinced then-GM Jerry West he was looking at a future star, the best coaching moments of icons like Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.

So when Bertka burst into the Lakers' scouting meetings this spring, raving about some kid from Utah he'd scouted during the Pac-12 Conference tournament, everyone in the room took note.

"He got all wide-eyed," Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss recalls. "And he said, 'If this guy is not an NBA player, then I do not know what the f--- I am looking at.' "

The guy who'd turned Bertka's head was Kyle Kuzma, a lanky forward with a sweet jump shot and old-school post moves who most mock drafts projected as a late second-round pick.

At the time, the room was still debating the merits of the star freshmen at the top of the draft -- Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, De'Aaron Fox, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum -- who had the talent to become superstars and change the course of the franchise if the Lakers ended up keeping their top-3 protected pick.

Most analysts regarded Kuzma as a solid all-around player with the potential to be a stretch-4 in the NBA game, but 21-year-olds do not get much credit for potential in the one-and-done era. And 21-year-olds who shoot 31.2 percent from beyond the arc in their junior year of college might as well pack their bags for the G League.

But when Bertka spoke that way about a player, it was best to pay attention. Kuzma might not have had the hype the Lakers' eventual lottery pick, Lonzo Ball, did. He certainly did not have anyone promoting him like Lonzo's outspoken father, LaVar Ball. But Kuzma had a versatility to his game that's hard to find in players his size (6-foot-9). If he was still available at the end of the first round when they had picks 27 and 28, they'd consider him.

"When Magic [Johnson] and I drew up the architecture for how we wanted this team to be built, we knew that positionless, versatile players would be at the core of that," Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said. "And when we started drilling down and studying Kyle, we knew he'd fit that mold."

Said Buss: "What stood out for me was his ability to switch between multiple positions and guard them as well. His offensive skill set did not really have many holes minus the consistency on his perimeter shooting. But he started to shoot it better once he got to conference play, and it carried into his workout with us.

"I loved his activity and his motor. He never really took plays off, and he did not really lose himself after making a mistake."

Buss says the Lakers had been watching Kuzma directly or indirectly since his freshman year when they were scouting former University of Utah center Jakob Poeltl (now with the Toronto Raptors). And because they'd seen him over a number of years, they could see the improvement in his game from year to year. It suggested a player who was still growing his skill set and maybe why he'd been such a late-bloomer on the prep and AAU circuit.

"In high school, AAU, even prep school, I did not really know how to play basketball," Kuzma says. "It was kind of like, 'Let's throw the balls out, go get buckets, just score and go play.' Once I got to college, I did not know defensive rotations, my footwork was sloppy. I used to travel every other play."

He was talented but raw. The proverbial diamond in the rough, or in this case, diamond from the rough streets of Flint, Michigan. He speaks openly of the violence and poverty he experienced growing up. His mother Karri described in heartbreaking detail how the water crisis in Flint caused her to break out in rashes, lose hair and feel sick.

But what Kuzma did have was an unrelenting work ethic and a coach, Earl Jordan, who was willing to put in the time.

"I got Kyle when he was a sophomore," Jordan says. "He was about 6-4 then. Skinny kid. And he could shoot the ball. His dribbling needed work, but he had a good idea of what he needed to do.

"So I talked to his mom and said, 'Look, let me work with him. I can help him. Bring him over here and I can help him.' "

Jordan has been working with young basketball players in Flint for four decades. Every year he runs a free camp that's attended by nearly 400 local kids ages 13-17. This year will be the 25th anniversary of his camp. Name a basketball player from Flint (they call themselves Flintstones) -- Charlie Bell, Mateen Cleaves, Robaire Smith, "Sweet" Lou Dunbar of the Harlem Globetrotters, Carl Banks -- and chances are coach Jordan has worked with them.

At age 67, and retired from a 35-year career with General Motors, coaching is Jordan's only focus now. All he asks in return for the time he puts in training is that the players come back to Flint and talk to the local kids.


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